The Big Picture
Things haven’t been great for the Clippers lately. They’re just 5-7 since the All-Star Break, and had seemed to be trending upwards with a nice 4-wins-in-5-games stretch before dropping their last two contests against the Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks in two winnable games. Now, the Clippers head to Denver on the second night of a back-to-back before returning home to host the Cleveland Cavaliers—two tough contests that could end up in the loss column before LAC enters a friendlier stretch of schedule. Statistically, visiting the Nuggets on the second night of a back-to-back is the toughest game in the league for the travelling team, as Denver combines high altitude with a long trek from the airport. The Clippers have an impossibly light schedule once they get through Saturday’s game against the defending champion Cavaliers—if they can steal one or both of these games, it’ll only help them build momentum for that soft stretch.
Much like last night’s opponent, the Nuggets are desperate. It isn’t unusual for teams like the Bucks and Nuggets, who are each clawing for a playoff spot, to have late-season success against teams like the Clippers, who are already secure and just jostling for seeding. Eventually, the Clippers are going to need to kick it into playoff gear—but one of the advantages of winning games all season long is that you don’t need to sprint to the finish just to snag the 8-seed. The Nuggets sit at 32-35, with a solid two-game lead over the 9th-place Portland Trail Blazers, but their remaining schedule is a gauntlet—not only do they have a head-to-head contest against the Blazers, but they play Cleveland, face the Houston Rockets three times, have two games left against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and must visit solid East teams in Indiana and Miami. Even their easy games feature three contests against the New Orleans Pelicans, who are dangerous with Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins even if their team isn’t good yet. In short, every game could end up mattering for the Nuggets—and this opportunity to take advantage of the tired and struggling Clippers is almost a must-win.
- Rest: Following the note that the Clippers are less desperate than the Nuggets: they’re resting Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan tonight. As noted, travelling to Denver for the second game of a back-to-back is among the most brutal schedule assignments in the association, and the Clippers elected for their two starting big men to not even take the trip. My guess is that Chris Paul would have stayed home tonight as well were it not for last night being one of the worst games of his career—I’m sure he’s happy for a chance to play another game after that performance.
- Injuries: The Nuggets will likely be without Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, and Darrell Arthur tonight. Kenneth Faried is also questionable. While their frontcourt is still led by the emerging Nikola Jokic, these injuries leave them perilously thin at the forward positions, pressing rookie Juancho Hernangomez into duty. Nuggets coach Mike Malone will also have to turn to some unorthodox lineups, likely playing three-guard units at times as well as playing Mason Plumlee alongside Jokic.
- Watching the scoreboard: It’s that time of year when teams in the playoff hunt aren’t just concerned with their own play. The Clippers have some scoreboard-watching to do tonight: they’ll want Cleveland over Utah, Toronto over Oklahoma City, Atlanta over Memphis, and Orlando over Golden State. If those four games miraculously all break their way, it’ll go a long way towards climbing to fourth, holding on to a top-5 finish, and the Spurs finishing in first place.