Staples Center operations staffers frantically gathered near the court midway through the fourth quarter Wednesday, talking into walkie-talkies and glancing, worried, at the basket on the arena’s southern end.
After absorbing three rim-bending dunks by the Clippers 7-foot-3 center Boban Marjanovic in the fourth quarter, the stanchion had become misaligned, the force of his dunks actually moving it off its mooring. The game paused and fans howled at the sight of workers hauling a ladder onto the court for what became a quick fix.
Those dunks, in which Marjanovic barely left the ground, will be the easiest it ever gets for the Clippers this season.
Wednesday’s NBA season-opener, a 107-98 loss to Denver, was a reminder that with the exception of a Marjanovic post-up, little will come without struggle this season for a Clippers team that figures to have a minuscule margin for error in the brutal Western Conference. The offense and defense could look out of alignment only to return to form just minutes later.
Such was the case Wednesday, in a game the Nuggets broke open for an 11-point, second-quarter lead against the porous defense of the Clippers’ reserves, only for the Clippers to pull ahead, then enter the game’s final 90 seconds tied.
But one of coach Doc Rivers’ preseason concerns proved prescient — the lack of an offensive closer to turn the ball over to in key situations. Given a chance to win, the Clippers squeezed only four points out of their last eight offensive possessions as they gave up a 92-84 lead.
“When you miss layups and turn the ball over, a lot of them were layups at the rim, it was an automatic break at the other end,” Rivers said. “Early in the first half I was disappointed in our transition D. I thought we got that cleaned up and then we ended up taking the lead.
“The thing that stood out to me was what I said before the year, can we close games? Tonight we didn’t do that. We had a lead, we had to go offense-defense a little bit and then down the stretch we really just didn’t get good shots.”
Tobias Harris scored a team-high 19 points with 10 rebounds.
“I thought we didn’t do our best job with how we normally play” offensively, Harris said, “and know how to play.”
Marjanovic finished with 18 points and eight rebounds.
“Tough loss today because it’s fun, first game, our crowd, opening night and I think every moment somebody like me could jump out,” Marjanovic said. “This night was me, other night will be someone else. It would be much nicer if we win this game and be like, get a smile on my face and talk nice stuff and joke around.”
Last season’s league-worst transition defense picked up where it left off from the opening moments, as Nuggets guard Will Barton dribbled from the three-point line to the rim for a dunk for his team’s first points. His teammate, Gary Harris, got to the rim the very next possession, as well, but missed.
Center Marcin Gortat and point guard Patrick Beverley, the toughest bulldog of the group, both were whistled for two fouls within the game’s first seven minutes and the Nuggets suddenly faced little resistance. Fifteen of their first 23 field goal attempts came inside the key.
Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a bright spot, appearing wholly unfazed by his first regular-season spotlight by scoring 11 points with four assists and two rebounds.
Beverley opened the night by taking a microphone and telling the crowd it would be a “hell of a season, straight up.”
Nothing will come easy.
“We’re going to have a lot of close games,” Rivers said. “You can just feel that.”