The Denver Nuggets are starting to find some consistency.
Denver defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 130-128 in overtime in Wednesday's thrilling Western Conference showdown at Ball Arena. Nikola Jokic was brilliant and led the way for the victors, who improved to 23-20 overall and 5-2 in their last seven games even though they continue to play without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
The reigning MVP was unstoppable in crunch time, but it was his cross-court pass while facing a double team to Aaron Gordon for the winning three in overtime that stood out the most.
Reggie Jackson and Ivica Zubac played well in defeat for the Clippers, who dropped to 22-24 as they attempt to tread water without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Notable Player Stats
- Nikola Jokic, C, DEN: 49 PTS, 14 REB, 10 AST, 3 STL
- Aaron Gordon, F, DEN: 28 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL
- Monte Morris, G, DEN: 19 PTS, 9 AST, 9 REB, 2 STL
- Ivica Zubac, C, LA: 32 PTS, 10 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK
- Reggie Jackson, G, LA: 28 PTS, 12 AST, 3 REB
Jokic Puts on a Show
The realistic goal at this point for the Nuggets, who entered play sixth in the Western Conference, is to avoid the play-in tournament and hope to get healthier for the postseason. That likely will mean Jokic putting the team on his back on a nightly basis as he bolsters his MVP campaign.
He did it again in the first half of Wednesday's game as the only Denver player in double figures by intermission, but the Clippers also made him work for it by swarming him with multiple defenders every time he touched the ball.
His importance was never clearer than when he was on the bench as the Nuggets' bench was thoroughly outplayed in the second quarter when their star was resting. The result was a double-digit halftime deficit for a home team that looked outmatched even with an MVP candidate.
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And then Jokic put the team on his back again during a 17-point third quarter that featured the big man stepping beyond the arc, grabbing offensive rebounds, torching single coverage whenever he saw it and then facilitating when the doubles came. It was an absolute clinic, and the Clippers didn't have the star power to counter on the other end.
It wasn't just a one-man show, though, as Gordon hit from the outside and attacked the basket as a go-to option when Jokic was either on the bench or doubled. Monte Morris was also aggressive in the fourth quarter and mixed in some two-man approach with Gordon.
The contributions were critical since Jokic didn't score in the fourth quarter until there were fewer than three minutes remaining. Naturally, crunch time featured nine points and an assist from the three-time All-Star in those final three minutes, although he couldn't hit a contested jumper at the buzzer to avoid overtime.
As if there was ever a doubt, Jokic was in full control in overtime with 11 points in the extra frame. He drove off the bounce like a guard, scored on offensive rebounds multiple times and then dazzled with the final pass.
Reggie Jackson, Ivica Zubac Come Up Just Short
The Clippers surely didn't think they'd be fighting for position in the play-in tournament coming into the season, but that's life without a healthy Leonard and George. Their returns will make them more dangerous come playoff time, but it is a nightly question about who will lead the charge in the meantime.
It turns out it was a little bit from everyone in the early going as 10 Clippers scored on the way to a commanding 12-point halftime lead.
Jackson took control with his outside shooting and ability to get into the lane, while Zubac provided an interior scorer and Serge Ibaka showed toughness on the boards. Five players also scored off the bench, with Brandon Boston Jr. leading the way for the secondary unit with his three-pointers.
Los Angeles seized control with a 21-2 run in the second quarter, as the Nuggets struggled to match its overall depth.
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Reggie with the LASER 🎯<a href="https://twitter.com/Reggie_Jackson?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Reggie_Jackson</a> ➡️ <a href="https://twitter.com/LukeKennard5?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@LukeKennard5</a><br><br>📺 <a href="https://twitter.com/BallySportWest?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BallySportWest</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ClipperNation?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ClipperNation</a> <a href="https://t.co/29d9m3OGC3">pic.twitter.com/29d9m3OGC3</a>
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.<a href="https://twitter.com/ivicazubac?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@IvicaZubac</a> cookin' tonight. 🔥<br><br>📺 <a href="https://twitter.com/BallySportWest?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@BallySportWest</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ClipperNation?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ClipperNation</a> <a href="https://t.co/uO4VxPVoOD">pic.twitter.com/uO4VxPVoOD</a>
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That control slipped away in the third quarter, though, as Jokic took over right as Los Angeles went cold for stretches on the offensive end. Fortunately for the visitors, Eric Bledsoe scored eight points in the final two minutes to keep the game tied heading into the fourth.
Bledsoe's spurt set the stage for Jackson in crunch time. The guard drove right at Jokic multiple times, mixed in some pull-up shots and was a willing passer when Denver started directing more attention at him, including for key triples by Luke Kennard and Boston.
Throw in Zubac carving out position down low and scoring on the blocks, and the Clippers managed to force overtime even with Jokic's incredible showing.
It was more of the same in overtime as Jackson assisted multiple Zubac baskets in an effort to match Jokic.
Los Angeles even got a break when Denver was called for a technical foul when the bench players ran onto the court to celebrate Gordon's triple, but Jackson's final shot came up just short in a back-and-forth thriller.
Both teams are in action Friday when the Nuggets host the Memphis Grizzlies and the Clippers travel to face the Philadelphia 76ers.