Preview: Nuggets host Clippers in battle of NBA contenders

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Denver Nuggets (26-12) will be fighting to regain the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference when the Los Angeles Clippers visit Pepsi Center Sunday.

Denver is coming off a disappointing 111-103 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, its sixth loss to a team with less than 15 wins on the season. The defeat exposed some areas where the Nuggets will need to improve if they want to be contenders this season, including defense and bench production. Fortunately, the team gets a chance to right the ship against Los Angeles less than 24 hours after Saturday’s disappointing result.

The Clippers (27-12) had a blockbuster summer, bringing in two All-NBA stars in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The Nuggets will get their first look at the newly-look contenders in what should be tightly contested matchup.

Los Angeles is coming off a 109-100 victory against Golden State Friday and is 6-4 in its last 10 games. This is a well-rested group which has only played two games in five days. The Nuggets catch a bit of a break as George is set to miss Sunday’s game with a hamstring injury. Still, this is a team that is used to alternating lineups with Leonard and George missing games due to ailments or “load management” and have found ways to adjust and win. Doc Rivers’ team is fifth in the NBA in net rating (6.0) due to their effectiveness on both sides on the court.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Jerami Grant and Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: 92.5FM/950AM

Here are three storylines to watch for:

Stopping “The Claw”

Leonard is arguably the game’s best two-way player, a disruptive defensive force who can also put up buckets. The 28-year-old is averaging 25.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.9 steals on 45.3 percent shooting.

With George missing Sunday’s contest, it enables the Nuggets to potentially double-team Leonard when needed. If they can stop his forays into the lane and paint, it neutralizes some of his effectiveness on offense. Leonard can make threes, but it isn’t his strong suit as he’s converting at 34.9 percent this season. When the small forward shoots under 40 percent overall, the Clippers are 0-7.

On the other end of the floor, the Nuggets will need to play efficiently. Leonard will likely start off guarding Will Barton III, but he could also see some time on Jamal Murray if Denver’s point guard gets going early. Avoiding self-imposed mistakes such as unforced turnovers could be key on Sunday.

Can Jamal Murray build on his strong second-half showing?

Speaking of Murray, the 22-year-old showed his resilience against Cleveland, quickly moving on from a 2-of-8 first half to score 20 points in the final 24 minutes of the game.

Murray has had an inconsistent January, but he’s impactful in clutch situations for the Nuggets. Over the last three games, Murray is averaging 6.7 points in the fourth quarter, shooting 47.1 percent. During the same stretch, Murray is shooting just 25 percent in the first quarter and averaging 2.3 points. Following the loss to Cleveland, Murray discussed the importance of hitting first against Los Angeles.

"We've got to bring it. We've got to bounce back and play with a hit-first mentality, especially at home. We've got to run,” Murray said. “We've just got to play through mistakes and play with energy, especially when we're playing at home in front of these fans."

If Murray’s late-game assertiveness could carry over to earlier parts of the game for Denver, it could be a significant boost for the team.

Win the turnover battle

The Clippers excel in a lot of areas, but if they have one weakness, it’s ball movement. Los Angeles is 26th in the NBA in turnovers, giving up 15.9 per game. The team is also not great with assists, sitting 18th at 23.4 dimes a contest. That’s a 1.47 assist-to-turnover ratio, which could provide some easy scoring chances if the Nuggets take advantage.

The Clippers give up about 17.5 points per game to opponents from their turnovers, which is 18th in the NBA. Another byproduct of that is fast break points by the opposition. Although the Clippers are currently sixth in defensive rating at 105.6, they are 26th in fast break points allowed at 15.2. If the Nuggets can capitalize and get out and run, it could be a deciding factor Sunday.

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