The Clippers were leading the Western Conference’s top team by nine points at halftime Saturday and yet coach Doc Rivers was frustrated.
Denver lurked. And it left him uneasy entering a quarter that has not always been kind to the Clippers this season.
“I felt like we should be up more,” Rivers said. “As a coach, you’re thinking third quarter (lead) is either going to go to 20 or it’s going to be a tie game. That’s how you felt.”
By the time the third quarter ended at Staples Center, the Clippers led by 17, the Nuggets were without their MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and Los Angeles had all but secured what became a 132-111 victory over the Nuggets.
It marked the second consecutive victory for the Clippers (19-13) and the worst loss of Denver’s season. Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris each scored 21 points and Montrezl Harrell added 20, with 10 rebounds, off the bench. The Clippers outrebounded the Nuggets 56-37 and outscored them in the paint 80-50.
They’d led comfortably for much of the first half but hadn’t put the game out of reach until the third quarter, as Gallinari and Harrell each scored 10 points and the Clippers’ deep bench overwhelmed a bare-boned Nuggets (21-10) roster — four of their top six players missed Saturday’s game with injuries.
“Third quarter, you can either make a run or break a run,” Harris said.
Despite the attrition, Denver had stayed atop the West because of its remarkable efficiency and the emergence of role players such as Monte Morris and Torrey Craig. Losing Jokic — who scored a team-high 19 points despite missing the final 18 minutes — was too much, however.
Jokic and teammate Mason Plumlee had trapped Marcin Gortat under the basket with 6:38 remaining in the third when Gortat fell out of bounds. Plumlee was whistled for a foul, and Jokic stepped toward an official to argue until he was kept from going any further by teammate Juancho Hernangomez. Jokic was called for two technical fouls and led off the court with his team trailing by 11.
Jokic declined to comment on what he said to merit the technicals and Gortat said he didn’t hear it, either. But he had strong words for Jokic’s game up to that point.
“He’s the biggest flopper in the history of NBA,” Gortat said. “Not only in this year in the league — in the history of NBA. He’s the biggest flopper, 300-pound dude and flopping all the time.
“At the end of the day, he’s very skilled, he doesn’t have to flop every time, but that’s what’s happening. All of a sudden, he pushes me out of bounds and he complains about it? It is what it is. Fouls being called both ways.”
Told of Gortat’s comment, Jokic shrugged and again declined to respond.
“Getting him thrown out of the game was part of our game plan,” Rivers joked. “But he’s tough, man.”
The Clippers had been slightly outscored during third quarters this season and sat right at the league average in third-quarter plus-minus. Their offense wasn’t the issue, ranking in the top 10 in third-quarter shooting percentage, so much as a defense that gave all those points back.
Saturday, the Nuggets made 11 of their 27 shots in the quarter and two of their eight attempts from three-point range.
“(Gortat) set the tone by being physical and then (Harrell) does what Trez does,” Rivers said. “I thought overall our defense on the ball, taking away paint points, it was really good.”