It wasn't pretty, but the Los Angeles Clippers were finally able to get back into the win column Tuesday night. Winning at the Pepsi Center is never an easy proposition, but L.A. went into Denver and downed the Nuggets 111-94. Six Clippers finished in double-figures, including all five starters, as they were finally able to snap a three-game losing skid and get a game they had to have. With a game against Utah tomorrow, L.A. couldn't afford to blow the first, easier half of the back-to-back. So, they didn't.
The starters looked much more lively to begin this one than they had in the last couple of games, jumping out to a 25-16 lead about halfway through the first. The ball movement was crisp and decisive, which helped keep the Nuggets' defense off-balance. Getting Blake Griffin going early felt like a necessity after his poor effort Sunday against Toronto, and he came out looking confident. Blake drilled each of his first three jumpers, while Chris Paul assisted on each of the first five Clipper buckets. The Clippers actually looked like the Clippers! But then...the reserves started to trickle in.
L.A.'s final points of the frame came on a J.J. Redick jumper at the 4:16 mark. From there, the Nuggets would go on a 10-0 run and would take a one-point lead into the second quarter. As has been the case most of the year with the bench lineup, the ball wasn't moving and, as a result, the majority of the shots they were getting were long, contested looks. The Clippers actually didn't record a single point in the paint in the first, and their only attempt came on an ill-fated DeAndre Jordan post-up.
The bench played quite poorly to finish the first period, but they held their own in the second. Following his reported postgame tirade on Sunday, Josh Smith gave the Clippers some excellent minutes, finishing with eight points and five boards in the second quarter alone. Rather than settling for jumpers the way they had been, the bench did a fine job of attacking the bucket and forcing the action. Smith was a menace on the boards and served as the catalyst for the bench's nice stint. The all-bench unit came into the game with a three-point lead, and handed a three-point lead back to the starters when the left at the 5:48 mark of the second. This was an excellent stretch for the bench, especially considering all that's gone wrong with them so far this season.
Danilo Gallinari predictably proved to be a handful for L.A., as well. He's a unique combination of size, strength, and skill, and the Clippers really don't have anybody you'd say would be an ideal defender for him. Gallo was enjoying a seemingly endless parade to the free throw line in the first half, and wound up going 16-of-17 from the stripe in the game. He almost single-handedly got Wesley Johnson into foul trouble, which fortunately didn't come back to haunt LAC in the end. Gallinari would finish with 20 points and 18 rebounds, both game highs, despite hitting just 2-of-10 shots from the field.
Speaking of Wesley Johnson, he was excellent in his highly-anticipated first start of the season. Here's what Redick had to say about Wes after the game (h/t Justin Russo):
J.J. Redick gives his post game thoughts on Wesley Johnson's first start of the year. pic.twitter.com/PeJOqeVEo1— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) November 25, 2015
"Spacing" has been Doc Rivers' buzz word regarding why he demoted Lance Stephenson from the starting lineup, and he's surely pleased with the effort he got out of Johnson in this one. His excellent three-point shooting this season continued, as he drilled 3-of-4 from beyond in 25 minutes. He's a heady player that won't force the action, which is exactly what the Clippers need out of their starting small forward. Johnson is quite clearly a better fit than both Stephenson (who played fairly well tonight) and Paul Pierce (again disappointing) at that spot.
Despite not playing particularly well, the Nuggets were able to hang around early in the third. Letting inferior teams stay close on their home floor is a recipe for disaster, but the Clips were eventually able to weather the storm. Following his hot start, Griffin suddenly got cold, missing 10 consecutive shots at one point. However, he was able to get back on track with the most miraculous of threes, this "alley-oop" effort at the death of the shot clock (via @DanWoikeSports):
Lob City!!!!! https://t.co/VUArJh2vLr— Dan Woike (@DanWoikeSports) November 25, 2015
After that, Blake hit each of his next three shots as the Clippers effectively put the game away. The offense was once again able to get going with brilliant passing and off-ball movement. LAC scored on nine consecutive possessions over a span of five minutes, with Denver helpless to stop them. The Nuggets were able to mount a mini-run against the Clips' bench towards the end of the third, but a Jamal Crawford half-court heave at the buzzer restored an 11-point lead for Los Angeles.
The fourth quarter was an absolute mess. There were fouls, fouls and more fouls. There were a total of 23 fouls called in the fourth alone, though most of those were Denver hack-a-DJ attempts. Jordan wound up shooting an NBA season-high 25 free throws, hitting 12 of them. If you're hitting 50% of your free throws when the opposition is intentionally fouling you, that's a win. Jordan connected on just enough of them to kill any chance Denver had of making it close in the end.
There were plenty of positives for the Clippers in this game, but the semblance of a workable rotation has to top the list. The Nuggets never mounted a huge surge, due in large part to the disciplined Clipper offense. L.A. turned the ball over just seven times in the game, which helped limit the damage an athletic team like Denver was able to do in transition. Yes, the Clips were outrebounded yet again (48-43), but they also limited the Nuggets to just eight offensive boards. Denver came into the game No. 7 in the NBA in offensive rebound rate, so keeping them off of the offensive glass was a huge plus for L.A.
They also did a fine job of limiting one of Denver's star rookies, Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay thrives on getting to the basket, but the Clippers were able to keep him out of the paint and make him a jump shooter. He'd finish with seven points and four assists in 24 nondescript minutes of action. The Nuggets are full of young, unproven players, and the Clips did well in asserting themselves as the superior team by refusing to let Denver get back into it.
As mentioned above, this felt close to a must-win for the Clippers with a showdown against the Jazz looming on Wednesday. The second half of a back-to-back against a stingy defensive team like Utah could prove problematic, but here's hoping the Clippers are able to build off of the success they found in Denver.