The Denver Nuggets on Monday were without the three indispensable cogs of last season’s championship run.
Somehow the Clippers, despite playing at full strength, were missing even more.
Unable to generate balanced scoring between their starting star trio of Paul George, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, unable to hold onto a double-digit lead three times, and unable to keep Nuggets understudies Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan from looking like the stars they replaced, the Clippers lost 113-104 to the short-handed Nuggets at Crypto.com Arena.
The circumstances of their struggle made this a head-scratching mystery as much as a standard-fare loss. Denver (12-6) was playing on a second consecutive night and without Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon, all battling various physical ailments. The Clippers entered having won four of their previous five games.
Improbably, the Nuggets’ hold on this series continued. Denver has won 11 of the last 12 games against the Clippers, who fell to 7-9.
Jackson, a former Clipper traded last season, dribbled out the clock. Boos were few because so many fans had already left for the exits with 40 seconds still to play. Denver closed the game on a 10-2 run.
Jackson scored 35 points, making 15 of his 19 shots. DeAndre Jordan, a former Clippers center, had 21 points and 13 rebounds.
George, who had averaged nearly 28 points in his previous seven games endured his otherwise superlative season’s most difficult offensive performance, scoring six points while making two of 13 shots. He had eight rebounds and four assists.
It was his first game this season without a three-pointer. He was taken out of the game with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter when he called for an offensive foul, his fifth, but was quickly called to return by coach Tyronn Lue after Jackson effortlessly drove along the baseline for a layup.
Harden took only three shots in the first half, the same number as reserve center Daniel Theis, and finished three for seven from the field with 11 points and four assists. When he didn’t appear comfortable taking a catch-and-shoot three-pointer late in the fourth quarter with the Clippers trailing by six, and instead turned the ball over — continuing Harden’s self-described adjustment taking such shots, despite his high success rate — fans could be heard imploring Harden to shoot. It was his third consecutive game attempting nine or fewer shots.
Leonard looked at his most comfortable offensively in weeks by scoring 31 points, but he took 26 shots. Ivica Zubac had 23 points and 14 rebounds for the Clippers.
To say the issues were on offense only, however, would have overlooked how the Clippers’ defense against pick-and-rolls made Jackson look like Murray, and Jordan like Jokic. Jackson scored 18 points in the first half by finding open seams and charging toward the basket. When his drives were closed off, Jackson often lobbed or dished to Jordan. As this was happening, there was often another Nuggets player cutting unchecked along the baseline, ready for a layup.
The Clippers found a way to avoid such possessions in the fourth quarter by repeatedly fouling Jordan, a 47% free-throw shooter for his career, in the Hack-A-Jordan strategy the Clippers once loathed when the 7-footer was on their roster. He made five of his 11 free throws.