Not even the team that made NBA history could dig themselves out of a hole like this one.
It wasn’t until the second half that the Nuggets woke up from their Christmas Day slumber, and by that point, it was far too late. Despite an encouraging fourth-quarter burst, led by previously dormant Jamal Murray, the Clippers exacted some small measure of revenge with Friday night’s 121-108 win. It won’t erase the sting from Denver’s historic 3-1 comeback in the Western Conference semifinals, but it was something. The Nuggets fell to 0-2 on the early season.
Down by 19 entering the fourth quarter, the Nuggets mounted several runs threatening to cut the margin to single digits. Each time, the Clippers responded with a deflating 3-pointer. Los Angeles connected on 19-of-38 3-pointers, all but destroying Denver’s comeback hopes.
Murray poured in 19 of his 23 points in the second half following six mediocre quarters to start the season. On several of the 3-pointers, it was as if the confidence attained in the “Bubble” never left.
Nikola Jokic had 24 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, falling just one board shy of his second consecutive triple-double.
Kawhi Leonard finished with 21 points and seven assists, though his night ended early after taking a scary elbow to the face from teammate Serge Ibaka. Leonard laid on the ground, bloodied, for several minutes before being helped off.
His teammate, Paul George, finished with 23 points including five 3-pointers.
It took until the third quarter Friday, but Murray finally played with the dogged determination he became known for in the “Bubble.” There were impassioned defensive stops and a few of his patented hard-fought buckets. Still, the Clippers’ lead hovered near 20 most of the quarter. If it wasn’t George hitting a difficult jumper then it was vets Lou Williams or Nic Batum maintaining a healthy buffer on the offensive end. The Nuggets ended the quarter with enough energy to suggest there was still some fight, even down 98-79.
Malone challenged his team following Wednesday’s heartbreak loss to Sacramento.
“We’re 0-1, we’re playing on our homecourt, and I challenged our guys yesterday, one of our small-sided goals should be never to lose two games in a row,” Malone said. “We should be really down, disappointed, frustrated and energized because we lost to Sacramento the other night, regardless of who we play.”
Irrespective of last season’s postseason drama, Malone wasn’t interested in narratives after the glaring holes he saw against the Kings.
“To me, this is more about us,” he said. “It always can’t be about who we’re playing, what’s the story. I think great teams find a way to bring it every single night regardless of the opponent.”
He wanted more connected transition defense, better on-ball containment and more effort on the glass.
“Get back, guard one-on-one, shot goes up, hit somebody and rebound the damn the ball,” he said before the game.
It might’ve helped had the Nuggets had injured forward JaMychal Green, who’s missed the last two games with a calf injury. Part of the reason the Nuggets coveted Green was for his toughness and physicality.
“The fact that he decided to join us was a sign of respect, and he wanted to be a part of the team he saw in the Western Conference semifinals,” Malone noted.
His challenge fell flat amid an underwhelming first half Friday night. The Clippers, on the basis of a blistering 12 for 23 from the 3-point line, held a 72-55 lead heading into halftime. They also held a 25-11 edge on the glass.
Leonard and George combined for 25 points, while nine different Clippers sunk at least one 3-pointer over the first two quarters.
Offensively, Jokic was, again, the primary focal point. His 16-point, six-assist half paced the Nuggets and kept them within a respectable margin. Backup guard Monte Morris salvaged some minutes for Denver’s second unit with 11 points in 14 minutes.
Murray got himself in foul trouble and failed to find any rhythm early.