The game between the Clippers and Nuggets on Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center was significant for both of them, with Denver barely ahead of the Clippers in the tight Western Conference race.
But it wasn’t until the Clippers sank into a 19-point hole in the third quarter, and the most unlikely group of Boban Marjanovic, Montrezl Harrell, Tyrone Wallace, Milos Teodosic and steady Lou Williams took the court, that L.A. responded to the gravity of the situation.
It was that quintet that essentially took a stand for the Clippers by executing on offense and playing stingy defense in helping L.A. to a stirring 122-120 victory in a game with high stakes before 15,004 fans.
And so with Marjanovic scoring a season-high 18 points and grabbing six rebounds, with Williams providing 25 points, six assists and five rebounds, and with Harrell working hard for his 15 points, the Clippers took over the eighth spot in the West by mere percentage points.
At 32-27, the Clippers have a .542 winning percentage to a .541 for the 33-28 Nuggets.
Plus, the Clippers have a 2-0 record against the Nuggets this season, giving L.A. the tiebreaker because the teams play only once more.
“It’s funny. We said it before the game. We said this is a game where we’re just going to search for lineups because of the altitude and see where we can go,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We bring Boban in and Montrezl, a lineup that was unconventional in a lot of ways, and that lineup changed the game for us.”
Still, after Austin Rivers made just one of two free throws for a 122-120 Clippers lead with 8.1 seconds left, L.A. was not out danger.
It wasn’t until Jamal Murray lost the ball on a drive that the Clippers escaped, giving them a sigh of relief and allowing them to slap hands and embrace each other before they walked off the court.
The Clippers were a joyful team because they had been so listless in the third quarter, playing an important game without any of the necessary spark.
With L.A. down 82-63 after Gary Harris waltzed in for a layup without any resistance from his defense with 4:24 left in the third, Rivers had seen enough.
He inserted Harrell and Marjanovic into the game and got the lift he was looking for.
Marjanovic had seven points in the third and Harrell played with his usual enthusiasm.
“I tried to give my energy and do my thing,” Marjanovic said. “I did what I was supposed to do and help the team to get this win.”
With the help of Teodosic, Wallace and Williams, the Clippers cut into their deficit and wound up down just seven points by the end of the third.
“I think we just started rolling and Doc stayed with it,” Williams said about that group. “Sometimes you’ll have some different lineups in and they get the job done. So, tonight was like that.”
At some point, the Clippers were going to have to clamp down on defense.
They were giving up way too many easy baskets to the Nuggets in the first 24 minutes of the game, putting the Clippers in an 11-point hole.
As the second quarter proceeded, the Clippers keyed in on playing better defense.
That allowed the Clippers to cut their deficit to 58-52 at halftime.
But before the first half was over, the Clippers had allowed the Nuggets to score 34 points in the paint.
In the first quarter, the Clippers saw the Nuggets shoot 58.3% from the field, putting Denver in position to take control of the game in the early stages.
But in the second quarter, L.A. got its act together on defense, limiting the Nuggets to 34.6% shooting.