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Clippers lose thriller to Nuggets, 110-104

Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins tried to rally the Clippers late, but they needed more from their stars.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Clippers and Nuggets have become appointment viewing whenever they play each other. The two teams had another dramatic battle, but the home team came up short for the third time this season as L.A. lost 110-104.

Nikola Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. were the game’s leading scorers with 30 and 25 points. The Clippers had five players in double figures, but Paul George and Kawhi Leonard combined for only 36, their star power not enough to withstand Jokic’s.

The last time these two teams met, the Nuggets went up 13 in the first quarter and the Clippers spent the whole game having to battle back. On Saturday, the Clippers began the game with a much better effort, thanks mostly in part to the return of Leonard for the first time in 13 days. Leonard scored or assisted on four of the team’s first five buckets as L.A. started 7-of-7 from the field. He looked wonderful, making an impact with his scoring and his off-ball movement while making the right reads in small-small pick-and-rolls.

On one play, Leonard made Aaron Gordon pay for top-blocking him by cutting baseline for a lob. On another, he brutalized Facundo Campazzo on a switch by drawing a double and feeding Ivica Zubac for a dunk.

The Clippers were up 18-7 before the Nuggets could even blink, but immediately gave most of that back when Leonard went to the bench. L.A. finished 3-of-16 from the field in the first period, as the second unit had difficulty getting on the same page. At one point, Rajon Rondo and George appeared to be running different plays on an inbounds, resulting in Rondo throwing a pass directly to Austin Rivers.

The bench unit wasn’t much better in the second quarter, though Rondo was pretty good individually. He had nine points and three assists, gliding to the hoop on multiple occasions despite Denver putting its best perimeter defender Shaq Harrison on him.

The Nuggets stayed in front, though, in part because of JaMychal Green’s personal revenge game. He hit two threes and had a vicious block on George at the rim. His energy was palpable. The bench burst of Green and Paul Millsap allowed Jokic to rest for nine minutes while Denver outscored L.A. by 10.

The Clippers made another run in the third quarter to regain the lead after trailing by five at halftime, this time on the shoulders of Big Government Reggie Jackson. Jackson’s wing three gave the Clippers their first lead in 14 minutes, but the team promptly gave back the advantage with a 9-0 run. Their defense was the culprit in this stretch, as Jokic had his way with the L.A.’s switching. He bullied past smaller defenders repeatedly and also hit a flurry of ridiculous shots around the basket. Jokic is an MVP-worthy player, and can beat a good defense, but the Clippers weren’t putting up a good enough fight.

Ty Lue switched things up with his bench rotation in the second half, bringing in DeMarcus Cousins instead of Patrick Patterson at backup center and sprinkling in Luke Kennard to give that group some offensive punch. Cousins wasn’t exactly the defensive salve the Clippers needed in pick-and-roll, but he provided some meaningful physicality on Jokic at least. Cousins also put up double-digit points without breaking a sweat, finishing with 16 points in 15 minutes.

The Clippers cut the lead to three with two minutes remaining, but then Cousins was called for a bogus non-shooting foul on Jokic. Lue elected not to challenge. Then on the reset, Jokic drew a three-shot foul on Cousins; that challenge was unsuccessful, and Jokic nailed all three free throws. The game never got within one possession again.

This result means that the Clippers have lost the tiebreaker to the Nuggets if it comes into play for postseason standings.