Nothing much went right Thursday night for the Clippers against the team holding the Western Conference’s best record.
Denver led by as many as 16 points in the first half and squelched every attempt at a Clippers rally in the second. After a jump shot by Tobias Harris cut Denver’s lead to seven two minutes into the third quarter, the Nuggets answered with an 8-0 run in 83 seconds. The game wasn’t over, but it might as well have been. Twelve Clippers turnovers limited their shots and helped Denver attempt 12 more shots.
The Nuggets won easily121-100 and avenged a blowout loss to the Clippers on Dec. 22.
To have glanced at the Clippers’ schedule before the season would have been to expect many nights like this from a franchise stuck between the star-laden era it dismantled and the next it hopes to build, starting this summer.
But as the Clippers reached the first half of the NBA’s regular-season, the surprise is how rarely they have experienced such outright struggles as Thursday.
“I love where we’re at,” coach Doc Rivers said. “We’ve had a couple games we haven’t played great, tonight was one of them. But overall, most nights we outwork the opponent. Some nights, the shots still don’t go in or we don’t get stops. I think a lot of our losses are little things defensively. A few nights offensively, but overall I’ll take our effort in the 41 games overall.”
Their 24-17 record, against what ESPN rates the league’s fifth-hardest schedule, ties them for the eighth-best winning percentage after 41 games in franchise history.
It is not a history with much success, of course. But this Clippers iteration finished the first half only three victories behind where the last full Lob City roster was in 2016-17.
The Clippers have beaten Milwaukee, the East’s best team, and registered a win against every other team joining them among the West’s top eight teams. Career seasons by Harris, Danilo Gallinari and Montrezl Harrell and clutch play by Lou Williams have lifted the league’s eighth most-efficient offense. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has handled a starter’s workload to mostly rave reviews.
“I don’t think we should be disappointed about anything,” center Marcin Gortat said. “I still think there’s room to improve, there’s a lot of room to improve. Nobody anticipated that we were going to be in the position we are right now so we should be happy but at the same time not satisfied.”
Certainly they were unsatisfied on their way out of Denver (28-12).
“We got ... whooped,” said Gallinari, who scored 18 points against his former team. Williams scored a team-high 19 points, Harris added 18 and Harrell scored 16.
Nuggets guards found little stopping their drives through the first layer of Los Angeles’ defense and, when weakside help didn’t arrive, they resulted in easy baskets by center Nikola Jokic. Jokic had 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists, including an assist where, in one fluid motion, he collected a rebound with his right hand, spun and lofted a pass downcourt into Jamal Murray’s hands for a transition layup. Murray scored a game-high 23 points.
The Clippers’ slow start showcased again their on-and-off effort to begin games. Consistency remains elusive.
“They played with an extreme amount of focus, confidence and intensity,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think we met that. That’s on me.”
No area, though, requires more improvement in the second half as the defense that is far from the “Clamp City” unit that was said to have the potential to rank among the league’s 10 best.
Coming off multiple abdominal surgeries last spring, Avery Bradley has yet to return to his lockdown form. Another player expected to be pivotal, Luc Mbah a Moute, has barely played because of injury. No player has been immune to the struggles that have left them tied for 23rd in defensive efficiency.
“Definitely not where we should want to be,” Bradley said. “The best teams in this league, the teams that compete for championships, are top-five defenses. ”
Said Gortat: “We need the killer instinct in order to be a good playoff team.”
That the team is even discussing playoffs in January would have been unexpected by many at the season’s start. And yet they stand fifth in the West at the halfway point, four games ahead of last season.