With the season winding down, every game is significant. In a critical showdown in Denver tonight, the Clippers were able to outlast the surging Nuggets, holding on for a 104-98 victory. The box score is here. More after the jump.
Prior to tip off tonight, the Nuggets had worked their way up the standings in the western conference , past Dallas and into the 6th spot. With the Clippers just a 1/2 game behind the Lakers for the 3rd spot, tonights matchup was a possible preview of a first round playoff matchup (got my tickets for game one today, and I can't wait). The nuggets are an interesting and potentially scary matchup for anyone they face. They are a fast paced team (2nd in the league in pace) and the top scoring team at 103.6 per game coming into tonight's matchup. They rank second in the league in assists per game, and are a top ten team in steals. They are not an elite three point shooting team statistically, but they definitely have some guys who can get hot and make them in bunches, particularly Al Harrington, Danilo Gallinari, Aaron Afflalo. Andre Miller, who for a number of irrational reasons is my least favorite player in the NBA, is extremely crafty, and does a nice job of setting the table for his teammates. Ty Lawson is one of the quickest guards in the league and a nightmare for any defense, particularly if he gets going. Their weaknesses? They tend to be a little turnover prone, and don't defend the three point shot very well, giving up a league worst 8.5 made threes per game at a 38% rate. Those were the two weaknesses the Clippers would need to exploit tonight on the road.
Denver came out of the gates hot, looking to push the tempo. That Ty Lawson guy is definitely fast from end to end,. Andre Miller is a master of throwing the outlet pass, something his teammates are certainly aware of, as they were frequently beating every Clipper player down the floor for fast break buckets in the early stages of this one. I don't have the numbers to back it up, but I would imagine that the Nuggets typically have a big advantage in the first quarters of home games as their opponents adjust to the altitude.Deandre Jordan looked to me to be really struggling to get his breath in this one, and I was screaming at him through my television to quit dragging ass on a number of occasions (In his defense, DJ did make a couple of good hustle plays in the half court, in particular a tipped rebound and saving the ball form going out of bounds that led to a Blake Griffin Dunk late in the second quarter). Defensively, Denver's strategy was was quite simple. No easy buckets for Blake Griffin. The Nuggets started with Faried on Blake Griffin, and when foul trouble took him out of the game they went to Al Harrington. But When Blake caught the ball on the block, a quick and aggressive double team with the Denver center (either Javale Mcgee or Kosta Koufos) came from the baseline taking away Griffin's ability to get up a shot. When he did catch the ball in position, Denver made sure to give a hard foul. Griffin was clearly frustrated early, and the Clipper offense was not looking sharp, making only 7 field goals in the first quarter. Luckily, 4 of those 7 fg's were three pointers, and the Clippers found themselves down only 12 at the end of one.
The second quarter saw the Clippers beginning to find their legs a little bit, and the Clips went on a 10-2 run to start
the period, thanks in large part to the bench, led by Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, and Nick Young. The second quarter was also the point in the game where I thought the officiating started getting pretty bad/strange, and in my opinion in stayed that way for the rest of the ball game. 28-21 foul disparity favoring the home team is not unreasonably high, but it seemed that the there were a number off ball fouls called on the Clippers at key point that really helped keep Denver in the game, as well as some no calls in the other direction. Now I know that I am watching the game witha built in bias, and I am looking forward to watching this game again for that very reason. On first watch, I thought the Clips got a hard time from the refs in this one.
The Clips went into the half down 6, but by the 9 minute mark of the 3rd quarter, they had jumped ahead of the Nuggets and had taken the lead and control of the ballgame, with Chris Paul orchestrating the offense brilliantly, and the Clips looked like they should have been able to put some distance between them heading into the fourth. By the end of the third though, some sloppy, careless basketball let Denver right back in, and Denver actually took the lead. A big three pointer by Nick Young to end the third tied the game up. It would be a clean slate heading into the fourth.
It was a gritty, strange game through three quarters, and it would stay that way until the very end. Ty Lawson continued to cause problems for the Clips, scoring 11 in the fourth. The Clippers seemed to have the upper hand, but it was never easy. Denver would put the lengthy Afflalo on Chris Paul a number of times, and Andre Miller did a pretty nice job on Paul as well. The third biggest play of the game came with about 3 minutes left to play, when, after Chris Paul lost the ball , Mo Williams picked it up with time running down on the shot clock, launching and hitting a 36 foot three pointer. However, up 5, Faried would complete a 3 pt play on a silly foul (albeit a very minor touch foul that did not need to be called) on Chris Paul, giving some hope and life to the Nuggets. The nuggets would tie up the game after consecutive horrible possessions by the Clippers. Then with 27 seconds left, came the second biggest play of the game, when Kenyon Martin had a brilliant tip in of a Chris Paul miss to give the Clippers a 2 point lead. And K-mart wasn't done. Out of a timeout, Denver ran a real nice play with Lawson getting away from chris Paul for a lob underneath the hope. Martin made the play of the game with a superb block of Lawson at the rim. The Clips secured the rebound, and made their free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
It was a frustrating game at times, but it was another great win for the Clippers, who have now won 13 of 15 games down the stretch. They weren't able to do their damage inside (and in fact Denver did a terrific job in the paint tonight, particularly in the first half), but they found a way to win. The Clippers connected on 14 of 24 threes, had 11 steals, 7 blocked shots, forced 15 turnovers, and had 21 team assists tonight. This game was only close because of the 17 turnovers the Clippers had tonight. The Clips are playing good basketball at the right time, and these western conference battles are going to make them all the more ready for the playoffs.
Next game is tomorrow against Phoenix.