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Game Preview: Clippers Host Top-Seeded Nuggets

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With one game in the win column since their mid-December slump, the Clippers seek to improve their playoff positioning with a win over the best-in-the-West Nuggets.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information:

Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles, California

When: 2:00 PM PT

How You Can Watch: FSPT

How You Can Listen: AM 570 LA Sports Radio

Projected Starting Lineups:

Los Angeles Clippers: Avery Bradley, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Marcin Gortat, Tobias Harris

Denver Nuggets: Torrey Craig, Juancho Hernangomez, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Mason Plumlee

Injuries:

Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute (Sore left knee) – OUT; Jerome Robinson (Strained right foot) - OUT

Nuggets: Gary Harris (Hip) – OUT; Isaiah Thomas (Hip) – OUT; Michael Porter Jr. (Back) – OUT; Jarred Vanderbilt (Foot) – OUT; Will Barton (Hip) – OUT; Paul Milsap (Toe) - OUT

The Big Picture:

The Los Angeles Clippers (18-13) host the Denver Nuggets (21-9) at the STAPLES Center Saturday afternoon, hoping to extend their win streak to two after a four-game skid that dropped them to the number six seed in the playoff picture.

The two franchises have not met since the Clippers’ season opener, in which the Nuggets prevailed, 107-98. Tobias Harris was best for the Clippers in that ballgame, with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Boban Marjanovic (18), Danilo Gallinari (16), Lou Williams (14) and Shai GIlgeous-Alexander (11) also scored double-figures for Los Angeles. Nikola Jokic had a game-high 21 points for the Nuggets in the contest, while Gary Harris contributed an additional 20. In a boon to Los Angeles, Denver is without Harris this time around. The fifth-year shooting guard is out with a hip injury.

The Clippers are primed to continue their rise from an early December rut, with home court advantage in 10 of the next 14 games and Williams back from injury. Williams performed brilliantly in his return on Thursday, pouring in 26 points on 9 for 12 shooting and dishing out eight assists in the Clippers’ 125-121 home win over the Dallas Mavericks.

Williams’ importance to a well-functioning Clipper offense can’t be under-estimated. When he is on the floor he draws so much attention he can’t help but improve everyone’s game. Sweet Lou also has a special relationship with Montrezl Harrell. Harrell is a primary beneficiary of Williams’ ability to spread the floor, and a frequent recipient of his dishes and dimes. Harrell had 18 points, six rebounds and four assists against Dallas, and should have another big game, alongside Williams, against Denver.

The Antagonist:

Despite being plagued with injuries - down three of five starters for most of December - the Nuggets have been white hot, winning 11 of their last 13 games. The franchise will be vying for a fifth straight victory in Los Angeles on Saturday, after beating the Mavericks at home on Tuesday, 126-118, and enjoying three days of rest. Jokic led the Nuggets in the win over Dallas, with 32 points, 16 rebounds and four assists. Jamal Murray added 22 points and 15 assists while Trey Lyles and Monte Morris each scored 16 points. As a team, the Nuggets shot a solid 55 percent from the field and went 12 of 29 (41.4%) from the 3-point line.

Jokic has been playing at an All-NBA level, and should be of concern to the Clippers. During the month of December the big man has averaged a near triple-double with 23.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 2.0 steals in 35.0 minutes per game. The 7-0 center leads the Nuggets in assists this season, with 222 (7.4 APG). He has dished out 10+ assists in seven games, tying him for ninth place in the NBA for most games with 10 or more.

On the defensive end of the floor, the Nuggets have greatly improved since the 2017-18 season, and currently rank near the top of the NBA in several categories. They boast a defensive rating of 106.1 (5th of 30), and have held opponents to an average of 103.4 points per game (3rd of 30). In 13 of their first 30 games the Nuggets held opponents, including the Clippers, to under 100 points. They also held opponents to 15 points or fewer in five quarters this season.

Keys to a Clipper Win:

Interior Defense: The Nuggets are currently 5th in the NBA when it comes to points in the paint (52.7) and boast one of the most talented centers in the league. Although Jokic is averaging only 9.7 points per game in the paint (30th in the NBA), the potential for him to go off in the middle is considerable. Interior defense has been a glaring issue for the Clippers all season. During their recent four-game losing streak Jusuf Nurkic (20 points), LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points) and Serge Ibaka (25 points) all exploited this weakness. Los Angeles needs to find a way to stop teams from devouring them on the inside.

Rise of the Reserves: In addition to having Sweet Lou back, the Clippers’ other key reserves are getting back to normal after a brief downturn earlier in December. This uptick is important, as starters Tobias Harris and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have had a few not-so-great games, and Avery Bradley has been consistently awful on offense and an overall negative to the franchise, despite his defensive potential. The Clippers depth is only an advantage when it is contributing meaningfully.

Williams’ above-mentioned 26-point performance off the bench against the Mavericks marked the NBA-leading 20th time this season that a Clippers reserve has scored 20+ points off the bench. Williams and Harrell rank second and seventh in the NBA in bench scoring, respectively. They’re the only set of teammates averaging 15+ points off the bench this season.

Patrick Beverley, despite still not shooting consistently or particularly well, has come up with big buckets and free throws in a few games, and tallied a season-high 11 assists on December 17 against the Portland Trail Blazers, one off his career-best mark. Beverley is not the guy who should be taking clutch time shots, however, his fearlessness, competitiveness and willingness to step up in big moments is something to be admired.

Il Gallo, Keep Crowing: Forward Danilo Gallinari scored a Clippers career-high 32 points in Thursday night’s win over the Mavericks. He also contributed six rebounds and four assists. Il Gallo is averaging 19.5 points on 45 percent shooting, 6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. His three-point shooting average is 45.3 percent, a career best. Gallinari’s offense has been obviously spectacular, but his defensive abilities have been a unexpectedly pleasant surprise. He has been relatively quick on his feet, moves well laterally and has demonstrated an ability to guard guys on the perimeter. It is essential that Gallo stay healthy and continue his high level of play for the Clippers to have a real shot at post-season play.

Release the Boban: Boban Marjanovic may see some meaningful playing time this contest. The last time these two squads suited up Bobi poured in 18 points in just as many minutes and snatched up eight boards.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Interested in the Nuggets’ perspective on this match up? Find it over at Denver Stiffs.