Preview: Denver Nuggets battle LA Clippers on national stage

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The first two games for Aaron Gordon in a Denver Nuggets uniform couldn’t have gone much better than two convincing wins against two Eastern Conference playoff teams.

Gordon’s statistics haven’t jumped off the page in his first two games in the Mile High City, but Denver hasn’t needed a lot of production from him as he continues to adjust to his new surroundings. When Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray can combine for 57 points as they did Tuesday against the Philadelphia 76ers Tuesday night, Gordon can pick his spots and provide solid defense on the wing for the Nuggets.

MORE: Takeaways from win over 76ers

However, now the real test comes for Denver (29-18), as a matchup against the LA Clippers looms Thursday night under the bright lights.

Prior to a surprising loss to the Orlando Magic Tuesday, LA (32-17) was surging and showing why many still project the Clippers to be one of the true title contenders this season. 7-3 in their last 10 games, the Clippers’ offense continues to dominate as their defense has crept above league average.

Paul George has missed the past two contests heading into Thursday’s matchup, so his availability is something to keep an eye on. The Clippers won the first meeting between these two teams this season, a 121-108 victory on Christmas.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Will Barton III, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr., Nikola Jokić

TUNE-IN: 8 p.m. MT, TNT and 92.5FM

Key matchup: Aaron Gordon vs. Kawhi Leonard

Games like Thursday’s meeting against LA are exactly why the Nuggets felt they needed to acquire a player like Gordon. Last season and in the 2020 playoffs, Jerami Grant was often tasked with slowing down the two-time Finals MVP.

Now, Gordon will get his shot against Leonard, a matchup that he has had some success in previously.

During the 2019-20 season, Gordon matched up with Leonard for 15 minutes across two meetings, with Leonard shooting 45.5 percent from the field and committing three turnovers in those minutes. Looking back further, Gordon held Leonard to 41.7 percent shooting across three matchups during the 2018-19 season.

If Gordon can make things difficult for Leonard (averaging 26 points and 4.9 assists per game on 51.5 percent shooting from the field this season), it will go a long way in helping Denver’s defense slow down LA’s high-powered offense.

Defending the 3-point line

Speaking of LA’s high-powered offense, a lot of that power has been coming from beyond the arc this season. It wouldn’t be too drastic to consider the 2020-21 Clippers to be one of, if not the best 3-point shooting team in NBA history.

Excluding garbage time, LA has hit a staggering 42.2 percent of its 3-point attempts this season, which is nearly two percentage points better than the second-ranked Utah Jazz.

The worst 3-point shooter in LA’s rotation has been Serge Ibaka, who has still knocked down 35.2 percent of his attempts from downtown this season.

For the Nuggets, this could spell serious trouble as their defense has been vulnerable from beyond the arc this season. Opponents have attempted 38.5 percent of their shot attempts from the 3-point line against Denver this season, which puts Denver 23rd in the league in that aspect.

If the Clippers get plenty of quality looks from deep Thursday night, Denver’s defense will be in trouble.

The battle in the mid-range

Denver and LA operate in a very similar fashion offensively. Both teams take a healthy amount of shot attempts from the mid-range and from beyond the arc while attacking the rim isn’t as much of a focus.

LA ranks 29th in the frequency of shot attempts coming at the basket and 15th in the frequency of shot attempts coming from beyond the arc, while Denver ranks 22nd and 18th respectively, in those two areas.

As a result, both teams are often most comfortable operating in the mid-range. The Clippers have attempted 35.7 percent of their shot attempts from this area of the floor, which ranks sixth in the league. Meanwhile, the Nuggets aren’t too far behind at 10th, taking 33.7 percent of their total shot attempts from the mid-range.

Denver has shot better on such shots, ranking fourth at 46.2 percent, compared to 43.1 percent for the Clippers, which ranks 10th.

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