I don't think anyone saw this coming. The Clippers had lost two straight games to teams with losing records. The Nuggets had been looking like one of the elite teams in the league, and after dismantling the Lakers last Friday on ESPN, were fully expected to do the same to the Clippers tonight. With no Milph on Prime Ticket, I decided to watch the national broadcast to see what they're saying in Bristol about the team. When Carmelo Anthony scored 17 first quarter points on 6 for 6 from the field and 5 for 5 from the line, helping the Nuggets build an early lead, this game was nicely following ESPN's proposed pre-game narrative. The Nuggets are contenders, Carmelo is an MVP candidate, the Clippers are tonight's victim.
And then something strange happened. After Melo's last points of the first quarter gave Denver their biggest lead of the game at 12, the Clippers proceeded to score 19 in a row, turning a 12 point deficit into a 7 point lead three minutes into the second period. They never trailed again, recording their biggest win of the young season 106-99.
Not that they didn't make us worry. They eventually built the lead as high as 19 points. But after Anthony's three trimmed it to 15 to close the third, the Clippers came out flat in the fourth and Denver quickly began to cut into the lead. It's hard to fault the second unit too much in the fourth quarter - after all, these are the same guys who turned the game around for the Clippers in the second quarter - but it got pretty dicey there for a moment. As has happened in so many other fourth quarters this season, the Nuggets turned up the defensive intensity, and the Clippers seemingly had no answer. A 20 to 4 Denver run cut the lead from 18 all the way down to 2.
On the Clippers first possession with the lead down to two, Rasual Butler hit a three. After getting a stop, Baron Davis hit a three. So after scoring 4 points in the first 6 minutes of the quarter, the Clippers suddenly hit six in about 30 seconds, and the lead was once again 8. To their credit, the Clippers continued to make plays down the stretch to hold on for the win. I really want to emphasize that Butler three. The Clippers, although they did give up a 20-4 run, never gave Denver the chance to tie or take the lead. Although the lead got down to two, by the time Denver got the ball back it was up to 5, and the next trip it was 8. Psychologically, Butler closed the door on the Nuggets with that three. It had taken a lot of effort on their part to climb back in, but I think that three really hurt them.
Anthony finished the game with 37, but arguably the Clippers played it just right - they didn't let anyone else beat them. J.R. Smith was scoreless in the first half, and finished with only 9 points on 13 shots. Chauncey Billups was 1 for 5 and scored a mere 5 points. Credit Rasual Butler and Baron Davis with outstanding defense on those two.
Meanwhile on the offensive end, the Clippers much-maligned wings both came through. Butler had a season high (and therefore his high as a Clipper) 27 points to lead the team. He was 8 for 15 from the field and 4 for 9 from deep. Al Thornton had 18 points on 6 for 10 shooting. The production from Rasual and Al was welcome - we've been saying that Chris Kaman and Baron Davis would have to carry the load, and frankly it's probably just too much for them to do night in and night out. With Butler and Thornton providing scoring punch, it provided much needed help to Baron and Chris.
At first glance, you may think that Kaman had a particularly bad game with a season low 13 and 4 for 10 shooting (how about that - after 14 games, his season low is a couple points higher than his career average). But in fact Kaman played very well. Kenyon Martin is a very good low post defender for one thing. For another, when the Nuggets did double team, Chris handled it as adroitly as I've ever seen him. He had 6 assists in the game, one off of his career high, and it was no accident. He established position, was patient and didn't rush things, and when the double came, he made good passes out of it, many times leading to baskets.
It's tempting to hope that this game will create a little momentum for the team. They should be getting Eric Gordon back for the next game. They still have a bunch of winnable games coming up, starting with Minnesota Monday. It would be really great to string a few games together here playing like they did against Denver.
But who knows if it's going to happen? You just never know what you're going to get with this team. After all, no one expected them to beat Denver.