Denver Nuggets 114, LA Clippers 104: Three takeaways

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Once again, the Nuggets overcame tough circumstances to defeat a top playoff-contending team. Despite being on the second night of a back-to-back and facing an LA Clippers squad that many expect to win the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets secured a 114-104 victory Sunday at Pepsi Center.

"I'm proud of our guys for settling down," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. "Even though the defense overall wasn't great, I thought it was a big improvement from where it's been as of late. (We) accepted the challenge against a really good, physical team."

The Nuggets’ offense struggled out of the gate and the Clippers took advantage. LA (27-13) built an early 14-8 lead on the back of impressive shooting (6 of 9 from the field). Although the Nuggets (27-12) shot 2 of 9 from the field in the opening minutes, they were able to take the lead late in the first after a 7-0 run. Denver’s offense was fueled by hot 3-point shooting (4 of 7) and several trips to the charity stripe (7 of 10 in the quarter). However, the Clippers regained a one-point lead at 30-29 after one quarter of play.

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Michael Porter Jr. dropped seven quick points to open the second quarter as Denver’s second-unit regained the lead. The Nuggets continued to build on their lead with a 19-6 run early in the quarter. At the half, Denver held a 66-52 lead. Gary Harris led the way with 15 points and three steals in the first half, as the Nuggets shot 55 percent from the field.

It was a slow start for both teams to begin the second half, as the Nuggets held on to a double-digit lead after the first five minutes of the third quarter. Nikola Jokić knocked down his third 3-pointer of the night near the midway point of the quarter which pushed Denver’s lead to 18. Denver continued to hold on to a significant lead throughout the quarter and took an 89-74 lead into the final frame.

The Nuggets built the lead back up to 18 points with a 7-4 spurt to begin the fourth quarter. The lead didn’t dip below 15 points as Denver held a 103-85 advantage midway through the quarter. The Clippers made one last surge late in the fourth, as a 10-0 run cut Denver’s lead to eight points with just under four minutes remaining. The physicality of the game certainly picked up during this stretch, as both teams were called for several fouls when battling in the low post.

Although the Clippers cut the lead down to six points with 1:26 remaining, Jokić knocked down two free throws, which was followed by an ejection of Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, which gave Denver more free throws to seal the deal.

"To come back tonight on the second night of a back-to-back and show that kind of toughness and grit, I couldn't be prouder of our group," Malone said.

Here are three takeaways from Denver’s win:

Denver’s offense responded in a big way

Following a disappointing performance against the Cavaliers Saturday, Denver’s offense picked up steam in the second quarter against the Clippers and routinely generated quality looks each trip down the floor.

The Nuggets dropped 37 points in the second quarter on the league’s sixth-ranked defense and although the offense slowed down in the second half, it was enough for the Nuggets to escape with a big win. A key factor on Sunday was 3-point shooting, as Denver shot 11-of-25 (44 percent) from beyond the arc, which was a stark contrast from previous games.

The second unit stepped up

Headlined by Michael Porter Jr.’s 13-point performance (on 6-of-8 shooting from the field), the Nuggets’ second unit impressed on Sunday against one of the best bench units in the NBA. Although Lou Williams started in place of Paul George, LA still possesses a dynamic bench headlined by Montrezl Harrell.

"Michael has that kind of ability," Malone said. "I think he settled down, we ran a couple of plays for him, he finished, shot the ball well and rebounded. He's only going to get better and I've got to let him play through some mistakes."

However, it was Denver’s bench that took control of the game in the second quarter and helped maintain a double-digit lead in the third quarter. Mason Plumlee contributed across the board with seven points, six rebounds and four assists, while Monte Morris continued to provide a steady balance of scoring and playmaking (12 points and six assists on the night).

A bounce-back defensive performance

It’s no secret that Denver’s defense has slipped in recent weeks. Over the past two weeks, the Nuggets have had the last-ranked defense in the league. But that all changed for a night against the Clippers.

"We looked like a totally different team than we did 24 hours ago," Monte Morris said. "Shots fell, but I think we took on the challenge and played defense tonight. We were together on defense, as opposed to the other night."

Denver held LA to a 108.3 offensive rating and did a great job defending the 3-point line. The Clippers shot just 24.2 percent from beyond the arc and also committed 14 turnovers.

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