Clarity, as the playoffs approach, is almost always in short supply.
The Nuggets, though, got it Wednesday night as a result of their 124-111 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. By virtue of the loss, the Nuggets locked themselves into the No. 3 seed and will face the No. 6 Utah Jazz in the first round of next week’s NBA playoffs.
For the second consecutive game, the Nuggets rested their starters for the majority of the fourth quarter, seemingly content with their work. Had the Nuggets won, they could’ve still contested Los Angeles for the No. 2 seed, which would’ve meant a first-round date with Dallas. After Wednesday played out, they’ll take their chances against division rival Utah come next week.
Nikola Jokic was tremendous on offense in his 28 minutes, finishing with 17 points, 13 assists and seven rebounds. Jokic was ruthlessly efficient against an overwhelmed Clippers frontcourt that Denver could see in a potential second-round matchup. Michael Porter Jr. added 11 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes, while Jamal Murray, playing in his third game since returning from injury, had 10 points and six assists.
After so many injuries while in Orlando, the Nuggets never had any intention of pushing any of their key players. But with just one game left before the playoffs, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was frustrated over his team’s porous defense.
“Right now, we have the worst defense in the bubble, by a mile,” Malone said. “We need guys that can guard. Too many guys right now are just matadors. We just get beat way too easy at the point of the ball.”
Denver’s defense fell apart in the third quarter, allowing 40 points behind a torrent of 3-pointers. Their best answer was Jerami Grant, who poured in 15 of his 25 points in that quarter alone. Not only was his defense sorely needed to slow Kawhi Leonard, but his transition opportunities helped fuel the Nuggets’ offense. His return energized Denver’s second unit after he missed Monday’s game against the Lakers with a sore knee. Despite Los Angeles’ onslaught, the Nuggets held a tenuous 92-90 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Leonard and fellow All-Star Paul George were brilliant on both ends of the floor, combining for 53 points and five steals.
“I thought it was a great first half for us tonight and it was a very bad second half,” Malone said. “They turned up the pressure, they got into us, they took us out of our offense, and they got whatever they wanted.”
In Denver’s seventh game in the bubble, Porter continued to make his argument for a starting position once the postseason arrives next week. It’s likely that’s where Malone is leaning considering regular starters Gary Harris and Will Barton remain sidelined with injuries.
“Michael is slowly but surely understanding, ‘Who am I playing with? And the quicker I understand who I’m playing with, the easier the offense will be,’” Malone said of his star rookie. “If you want to win big, especially in the playoffs, you need three scorers. You can’t rely on just two people. We did that a lot last year and that put a tremendous amount of pressure and demand on Nikola, especially. We welcome Michael’s offensive output, and he’s starting to figure things out in our read-and-react offense.”
As the start of the playoffs inch closer, nothing is more important to the Nuggets than having their health. Grant’s return was a welcome, energetic addition as Malone managed his starters’ minutes. His defensive versatility would be paramount in any potential playoff series against either of the Los Angeles teams.
With health in mind, Malone approached Wednesday’s game much the same way he did the Lakers’ game. He didn’t want to overburden any of his starters, while still trying to find some semblance of chemistry that was previously robbed by injuries.
“Yeah, it’s a very similar situation as the Laker game,” Malone said. Against the Lakers, the Nuggets experimented with Murray in the post and deployed a rare zone defense.
“Use these as opportunities to get better, to try some things that we can potentially use moving forward,” Malone said.
If injuries force his hand that could mean more Bol Bol, whose comfort on the court is growing. In one stunning first-half sequence, Bol picked off a pass, dribbled the length of the court and finished off an indefensible dunk.
Jokic’s dominant first half was exactly why some view the Clippers as a more favorable potential second-round opponent than the Lakers, even with their star wings. Jokic bullied his way to 15 points and was, as usual, the team’s primary facilitator en route to a 58-50 halftime lead. Of his six first-half assists, none were prettier than his full-court heave to Porter that bypassed any unnecessary dribbling.
Porter added nine points and a few promising defensive moments, while Murray chipped in 10 points and two 3-pointers.