Nikola Jokic, Nuggets Beat Clippers in Kawhi Leonard's Return from Injury

Paul KasabianSenior ContributorMay 2, 2021

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, center, hits Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, in the face as he shoots as forward Michael Porter Jr. defends during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

A masterful performance from center Nikola Jokic propelled the Denver Nuggets to their fifth straight win en route to defeating the host Los Angeles Clippers 110-104 in Staples Center on Saturday.

Jokic scored 18 of his game-high 30 points (9-of-17 shooting) in the third quarter and added 14 rebounds and seven assists. Michael Porter Jr. (25 points) and PJ Dozier (16 points) complemented Jokic's scoring.

The Clippers welcomed back two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who missed five straight games with right foot soreness. He had 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting and six assists. Paul George paced L.A. with 20 points but shot just 5-of-21 from the field. Rajon Rondo (18 points, five rebounds, five assists) and DeMarcus Cousins (16 points) shone off the bench.

Denver, which moved to 43-21, has won five straight games and nine of 10 to move a half-game ahead of the 43-22 Clippers for third place in the Western Conference. L.A. has lost three straight games.


Notable Performances

Denver C Nikola Jokic: 30 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists

Denver F Michael Porter Jr.: 25 points, 7 rebounds, 5 assists

Denver G PJ Dozier: 16 points, 5 rebounds

Los Angeles F Paul George: 20 points, 7 rebounds

Los Angeles F Kawhi Leonard: 16 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds

Los Angeles G Rajon Rondo: 18 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists


Jokic Crushes Clippers

The NBA MVP candidate is carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders after point guard Jamal Murray suffered a torn ACL that prematurely ended his season.

Somehow, Jokic is meeting that challenge and then some as the nightly triple-double threat continues to dominate anyone who crosses his path on the basketball court.

Jokic produced another highlight-reel performance Saturday.

Like many other low-post defenders, Clippers center Ivica Zubac had trouble staying in front of Jokic, who spun and blew by him on this move:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

Oh come on Nikola https://t.co/NGVHNAVt2S

Like always, he got his teammates involved, finding Porter on a nice cut to the hoop:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

Mike went to work early tonight. https://t.co/rxltwHqY6x

Jokic's pinpoint passing accuracy led to this easy Aaron Gordon dunk:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

"Those passes literally dunk themselves." They sure do, @Rjeff24 https://t.co/3V7H5gHiLn

But Jokic's scoring guided Denver to victory on a night where offense was hard to come by at times.

He bullied his way into the lane for his 40th dunk of the season:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

#️⃣4️⃣0️⃣ A Joker Jam milestone https://t.co/ubviaxtibd

He went back to the spin move en route to a hook shot over Zubac:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

"Excuse me, coming through" - Joker, definitely https://t.co/Zcy7pBJEou

Jokic's ability to stretch the defense (coupled with some poor Clippers communication) led to this easy dunk:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

Put him in the dunk contest https://t.co/TiHMbNXJse

But not everything came so easy, and Jokic went back to work in the post, where he excelled once again:

Denver Nuggets @nuggets

MVP. https://t.co/1P34gLplEq

Chris Herring of Sports Illustrated asked an important question:

Chris Herring @Herring_NBA

Dawg, how is Jokic real?

Former Nuggets great Alex English and Nick Kosmider of The Athletic gave their MVP seals of approval:

Alex English @AlexEnglish_2

Jokic for MVP

Nick Kosmider @NickKosmider

Think that Nikola Jokic third quarter just stamped out the last embers of any MVP debate.

Personal accolades aside, Jokic's performances have been so great that Denver has remained a legitimate Western Conference title threat despite losing a clutch sharpshooter and floor general in Murray, who was averaging a career-high 21.2 points per game before suffering his knee injury on April 12.

Denver has somehow gone 9-1 since then.

It's possible the loss of Murray, who was a fantastic clutch performer in last year's playoffs, is too much to overcome en route to a deep playoff run. However, anything appears possible right now with Jokic, who is destroying everything in his path.


Clippers' Comeback Falls Short

Leonard's return began with the Clips rudely welcoming Denver into town with a game-opening 18-7 run. It looked like the Clippers would cruise to an easy home win against L.A., but there was plenty of game left, and Jokic and the Nuggets regrouped.

Denver took an early 12-point lead in the fourth quarter, but L.A. chipped away starting with this three-pointer from Terance Mann following excellent ball movement.

LA Clippers @LAClippers

Keep movin' it. 📺 @BallySportWest |📱 https://t.co/SxvCDP1Us0 https://t.co/vPDmHMbxxy

But it was Rondo who almost single-handedly kept the Clippers in the game.

The 15-year veteran scored nine fourth-quarter points, including all seven in a 7-2 Clippers run that pulled L.A. back into the game.

LA Clippers @LAClippers

.@RajonRondo is hoopin'. https://t.co/IRpec7o1CT

He also delivered this pass to Cousins for a big bucket to cut the Denver lead to 95-89:

LA Clippers @LAClippers

Rondo to Boogie! 📺 @BallySportWest |📱 https://t.co/SxvCDP1Us0 https://t.co/ZZEFn2Ivbz

Rondo came through on defense too, contributing a clutch steal and finishing on the other end to slash the Nuggets' lead to 101-98.

But that's as close as L.A. would get.

The Clippers were arguably on the wrong end of a tough call when Cousins was called for a foul on Jokic, who appeared to initiate contact with 1:46 remaining in the fourth quarter and his team up three.

"This is a bad foul call," Mo Dakhil of Bleacher Report tweeted. "Jokic initiates all the contact here, there is nothing Cousins can do. The foul called on the next play was the right call to me, but this one is just garbage."

The foul in question occurred with the shot clock winding down and Denver appearing to have little chance to score in a desperate situation.

Six seconds later, Cousins fouled Jokic from behind the three-point line on a shot attempt, and the big man responded with three made free throws for a six-point edge.

The Clips later cut the lead to 108-104 after a Cousins three-pointer with 35.7 seconds left, but two Facundo Campazzo free throws and a missed three from George effectively ended the game.

Credit to the Clippers for fighting in the fourth quarter and nearly pulling off the comeback, but Jokic and the red-hot Nuggets were simply too tough on this night.


What's Next?

L.A. will host the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET. Denver will stay in town to face the Lakers on Monday at 10 p.m.