The Clippers have recently had a habit of getting off to slow starts, allowing opposing teams to build big leads early in the game.
In Denver against the Nuggets, who entered the contest half a game back of the Clippers for the second-best record in the Western Conference, L.A. knew that a slow start would be untenable – not against an opponent with this level of talent and a sizable homecourt advantage.
The Clippers successfully reversed that trend and started the game with force on both ends of the floor, protecting the paint and attacking the basket on offense. They turned the ball over only once and were just the fourth opposing team all season to score 30 points in the opening period in Denver.
Unfortunately, that level of focus and energy didn't last beyond the first quarter, as the Nuggets took control soon after. Denver built a double-digit lead in the second quarter that lasted for the majority of the game until a late L.A. comeback ultimately fell short. The Clippers lost 114-104, falling to fifth place in the Western Conference.
The Nuggets had seven players score in double figures, led by Nikola Jokic with 20. Ivica Zubac did a respectable job of bodying up Jokic and forming a wall at the basket, but the Clippers' defense struggled when the bench came in to the game. By the time the first half ended, L.A. was down 14 despite Zubac being a net plus-minus neutral in his 12 minutes.
The Clippers were without Paul George for the second straight game because of his hamstring injury, and Doc Rivers followed through on his promise to give Kawhi Leonard more offensive help in the starting lineup. Lou Williams joined the starting five and had an instant impact on the offensive end, scoring 10 points in the first quarter and 26 overall. However, he essentially had to play backup point guard as well, requiring him to play 35 minutes in the loss.
The team also started Patrick Patterson in place of Moe Harkless, but Patterson failed to hit a shot all night. The Clippers' designated sharpshooter Landry Shamet was also scoreless from the field, and allowed his offensive struggles to impact his defense, where the Denver guards routinely blew by him.
Leonard was excellent on offense again for the Clippers, easily able to get to the basket against the Nuggets' smaller defenders. Denver tried to adjust by switching Jerami Grant onto him in the second half, but Leonard still got his shot whenever he wanted, ending the game with 30 points. Montrezl Harrell was the third Clipper in double figures with 25, but L.A. continues to lack offensive firepower behind its main stars.
Collectively, the Clippers shot 24.2% from 3-point range, despite some wide-open looks. All of their makes came from Leonard, Williams, and Patrick Beverley, meaning the bench was a combined 0-for-11.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets continued to mine scoring the deeper they went into their second unit, as Michael Porter Jr., Torrey Craig, and Monte Morris each chipped in at least 10 points off the bench.
The Clippers made a game of it late, but ultimately lost their composure late once Beverley fouled out trying to fight Jokic for position. Doc Rivers earned an ejection protesting the call from the bench, putting the nail on the coffin of the comeback.
"I just think we don’t have great rhythm right now. I think we’re on the same page, we’re just not doing it well," Rivers told reporters postgame.
Playing hard for one quarter was sufficient against lesser opponents, but not one of the best teams in the league, especially without a superstar on the road. The Clippers didn't bring the fight to Denver and were instead humbled by the Nuggets.