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Clippers-Nuggets Preview: Knocked Down

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Every Clipper will have to step up during Blake Griffin’s absence.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Picture:

So, with the “if they stay healthy” tag now lying in the gutter with other discarded preseason qualifiers like “if DeMarcus Cousins stops being a child”, the Clippers again focus their attention on excelling without Blake Griffin. It’s been well publicized that their record while missing a star, particularly Griffin, has been surprisingly stout. Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, and company demonstrated for a long stretch last season that they can each shoulder an extra load to compensate for their missing forward. Blake’s injury certainly could linger, but the projected three-to-six-week absence is no death knell. Hopefully, the Clippers need only hold serve through MLK Day before reintegrating #32 for a stretch run at a top-three playoff seed. In the meantime, tonight’s matchup against a squad flush with athletic big men will force them to acclimate quickly.

The Antagonist:

Many in Denver may be disappointed by their current 12-16 mark, but that leaves the Nuggets just a short hike from playoff position in a Western Conference with an atypically mortal middle class. Mike Malone’s squad may lack starpower, but they boast enviable depth and a few unpolished gems. In addition to recent first-round picks Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, and Jusuf Nurkic, they’ve unearthed a keeper in multi-faceted big man Nikola Jokic, who some famously reported as being untouchable during last year’s Blake Griffin-to-Denver rumor frenzy. All those players boast pedigree — some have also managed real production — and not one has turned 23. Throw in a wrecking ball like Kenneth Faried and objects of Clipper affection Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and the Nuggets can bring real danger on any night.

The Subplots:

  • Comparison of Key Metrics: The Nuggets come into tonight a hair’s width above the bottom five in defensive efficiency, but they’ve been OK against opposing guards, holding them to roughly 45 points per game, 12th-best in the NBA. With Blake Griffin out, the Clippers will need Chris Paul and JJ Redick to up their scoring output.
  • The Schedule: Next up is a primetime on TNT tip against the Spurs on Thursday night, with the Mavericks coming hot on their heels Friday. Then it’s a Christmas date with the Hated Lakers.
  • Starting Nod: According to the L.A. Times’ Brad Turner, Austin Rivers, who has three starts so far this season, has been listed as Blake Griffin’s replacement in the starting lineup.
  • Rue the Mudiay: 2015 seventh-overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay was widely heralded as a draft-day steal, but the 20-year-old point guard has struggled in his short year-and-some in the league. His inability to shoot (career: 36.5% FG, 31.5% 3PT) hampers all of his other efforts, and his overall inefficiency may be reason #1 for Denver’s underwhelming record. Denver’s roster needs a point guard, and Mudiay has yet to provide them with one.
  • Gallo Regression: Reason #2 may be this man: Danilo Gallinari. After a career year in 2015-16, the Italian forward has slipped in PER from a sparkly 19.04 to a pedestrian 14.91. He’s playing almost exactly the same number of minutes (34.7 to 34.6) and converting equally well from the field (58.2 to 58.4 True Shooting %), so does the problem lie with a decreased offensive role? His usage rate is down nearly 4%.
  • Defense in Decline? The Clippers have fallen from their lofty perch atop the NBA’s defensive efficiency leaderboard to sixth with a 101.9 mark. Last year, the Clippers were 0.7 points per 100 possessions worse defensively during Blake Griffin’s quad-and-fist-related absence. Going small with a three-guard lineup likely means less Luc Mbah a Moute on opposing wing scorers, something that bears watching.
  • For the Nuggets’ point of view, head over to Denver Stiffs.