Nuggets blow 25-point lead in second-half collapse vs. Clippers

Nothing about this season is pretty for the Nuggets. Tuesday’s loss to the Clippers might be the ugliest yet.

The Nuggets blew a 25-point, second-half lead, collapsing in an awful 87-85 loss in Los Angeles.

Nikola Jokic’s last-second 3-point try fell short, and Aaron Gordon’s put-back attempt was off. It would’ve salvaged an awful second-half performance.

“We have a really good player that we can’t get the ball to,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We had a lot of guys that looked a little nervous out there as they turned up their pressure.”

While Denver’s offense melted away, bricking 3-pointers and protecting the ball like they’d already secured the win, the Clippers found their 3-point stroke. Los Angeles buried 10 from the 3-point line, almost all of them coming in the second half.

It spoiled Gordon’s 30-point, 12-rebound performance, and rendered Jokic’s 21-point, 13-rebound, eight-assist night meaningless. The Nuggets finished the night with 19 turnovers, including five from Jokic.

Now 20-19, the loss snapped Denver’s two-game winning streak.

The Nuggets played downhill, attacking basketball to start the third quarter and ripped off an 11-4 run. Through Jokic, the Nuggets built a game-high 59-34 lead before the wheels fell off. As turnovers mounted, including several instances where the Nuggets failed to capitalize on a Jokic mismatch inside, the Clippers started chiseling away. A 21-3 Los Angeles run changed the complexion of the game and gave Los Angeles life.

Marcus Morris, the brother of Heat veteran Markieff Morris, was at the heart of it. His first-half flagrant one on Austin Rivers set a physical tone when he tossed a forearm toward Rivers’ neck area. As Los Angeles clawed back into the game, Morris’ mere presence offered an underlying tension throughout. The Nuggets held a tenuous 66-55 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

Malone praised his squad for their resiliency amid the ever-changing climate of the NBA season. Before the game, he made note that despite the havoc COVID had wrought, the Nuggets were 5-2 in their last seven games.

“The amount of moves that have been made in the last two weeks just seems like it’s crazy,” Malone said. “… It definitely makes it challenging when you got guys flying in and meeting you on the road and, you know, we hand out, ‘Hello, my name is’ stickers for everybody to wear, so we get an idea of who’s who.”

On Tuesday, that meant incorporating Rodney McGruder, who came to Denver via the Bol Bol trade, and James Ennis, who signed on a 10-day hardship deal. Malone credited the two veterans for picking up concepts quickly at Tuesday’s shootaround.

The first half was hardly an offensive masterpiece from either side, but the Nuggets fought hard for their 41-28 halftime lead. The sloppy, disjointed offense only magnified Jokic’s importance.

Per usual, he controlled all elements of the game. With seven points, eight rebounds and four assists, he imposed himself on the glass where the Nuggets held a marked, 35-18, advantage over the first two quarters. When he had the ball in his hands, he dissected the defense and waited for a moment of Clipper vulnerability.

It led to several backdoor baskets, which became more important as the offense ground to a halt.

Gordon planted himself inside and headed to halftime with 12 points and six rebounds.

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