Tonight, the Clippers will play their biggest game of the year... sort of. With L.A. sitting in 9th place in the Western Conference at 22-21, and the Denver Nuggets sitting in 8th place at 23-21, it’s pretty clear how big this match-up is. Still, it’s hard to argue that this Nuggets game is more significant for the team than their big road win over the Houston Rockets in December, or the first victory against the Warriors in years last week—or even the Clippers’ last game, when they triumphed over Chris Paul in his first return after being traded last summer.
Still, if this isn’t the “biggest” or most emotional game of the season for the Clippers, it certainly has the biggest standings implications of any game that they’ve played so far. For nearly two months, the mantra for the Clippers has been to weather the storm of injuries and try to stay around .500, in striking distance of teams like the Nuggets. Now, they’ve managed to do it, and they’ve survived long enough to reach a crucial late January slate that pits them head-to-head against the Nuggets, Blazers, Pelicans, and Timberwolves in a two-week span. A good stretch here could help pull the Clippers slightly ahead of the dense 5-9 pack in the West, and start a serious conversation about chasing Minnesota and the top half of the playoff picture. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves—stumbling in the next two weeks would knock the Clippers backwards, undoing their recent 11-wins-in-14-tries stretch.
DeAndre Jordan is listed as questionable to return tonight, while Austin Rivers, Danilo Gallinari, and Patrick Beverley are all still out for LAC. They also remain without C.J. Williams, who is on G-League assignment with his two-way contract until he recovers from a severe ankle sprain suffered last week. So, the Clippers head into this match-up just as they’ve ventured into most games this season: led by the scoring punch of Lou Williams, who is enjoying the best season of his career with averages of 23 points and 5 assists. In the Lou’s last 13 games, he’s averaging 31 points and 5.4 assists on 48% shooting from the field and 46% from deep. During that stretch, he’s earned Western Conference Player of the Week honors twice, and started earning serious All-Star consideration. The Clippers’ lineup also features Blake Griffin and Milos Teodosic, two creative offensive wonders who have helped lift this team’s attack beyond the “hope Lou or Austin gets hot” days of early December. Beyond that big three, a cluster of young, unproven players has scrapped nightly to bring second-unit success, with players like Jawun Evans, Tyrone Wallace, Sam Dekker, Wesley Johnson, and Montrezl Harrell all contributing as role players.
The Nuggets come into town with a balanced scoring attack centered around Nikola Jokic, who is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists a game from the center position. If DeAndre Jordan cannot play tonight, Willie Reed and Montrezl Harrell will be significantly outclassed at the center position by one of the league’s bright young stars. Around Jokic, the Nuggets feature contributors like Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Trey Lyles, Wilson Chandler, Emmanuel Mudiay, Mason Plumlee, and Kenneth Faried—solid players, and quite a few still growing and getting better at a young age. Even with Paul Millsap sidelined long-term, the Nuggets have stayed competitive in the playoff race with teams like New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and Portland. Similarly to the Clippers, it’s likely that they expect to be able to gain some separation if they can get fully healthy.
For now, though, these teams are left battling for 8th and 9th. The standings hardly matter in January, and both teams have about 40 more games after tonight to alter their fate in one direction or another, but the reality tonight is this: with New Orleans heavily favored against Atlanta, it’s likely that whoever loses this Clippers-Nuggets match-up will be on the outside of the playoff race looking in come tomorrow morning, and a game behind the rest of the pack with 22 losses.