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Clippers rout Nuggets to move into second-place tie in West

Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) powers his way for a layup against Nuggets forwards Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant during the first half of a game Feb. 28, 2020, at Staples Center.
Clippers forward Montrezl Harrell (5) powers his way for a layup against Nuggets forwards Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant during the first half Friday at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Clippers coach Doc Rivers once called the NBA the most over-scouted league on the planet, a place where advance scouts decipher opposing coaches’ hand signals in real time from press-row seats and coaches dissect each frame of game tape to a dizzyingly granular degree.

It’s why Rivers loves watching the film of Nikola Jokic.

In a world of familiarity, Denver’s 7-foot center remains one of the NBA’s most unpredictable, confounding players — one whose wrong-footed jumpers and passes from unexpected angles are a joy to watch on a coach’s off night, but a terror to face in person.

“First of all, he’s big,” Rivers said before the Clippers routed Jokic’s Nuggets 132-103 on Friday. “Secondly, he’s a great passer, he’s a three-point shooter, he can really play. He’s just a very, very skilled big. He plays the game more like a point but at a big man’s speed.

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“There are no bigs playing like that. He’s the only one.”

A center, Jokic holds the responsibilities of a point guard, not just screening for pick-and-rolls but handling the ball. A mountain of a man, he can nonetheless catch a pass at the three-point line and be at the rim two dribbles later. At a position forever defined by a player’s low-post strength, Jokic has become an All-Star by carving up defenses with his vision.

Former Knicks coach David Fizdale once called him a “7-foot-2 Magic Johnson” and Rivers, last season, described him as “the type of guy I’d like to have a drink in a bar with. I got a feeling he’ll eat nachos and cheese just by looking at him.”

That kind of night would have been preferable to the way Jokic and the Nuggets spent their Friday inside Staples Center.

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Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) tries to score inside against Clippers center Ivica Zubac, left, and forward Marcus Morries (31) during the first half of a game on Feb. 28, 2020, at Staples Center.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) tries to score inside against Clippers center Ivica Zubac, left, and forward Marcus Morries (31) during the first half Friday night at Staples Center.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

From the season’s very start in September, the Clippers have never been coy that their focus is on the postseason, and on Friday, amid their demolition of a Denver team that entered the night with the Western Conference’s second-best record, it appeared mid-April had arrived weeks early.

The Clippers (40-19) are now 7-0 this season when playing with their full roster, with the latest victory wire-to-wire. By the third quarter’s end, the lead was 19. The highly anticipated matchup unraveled into a mismatch.

“They kicked our [butt] for 48 minutes,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “I can say that 10 different ways, but that’s the bottom line.”

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After dipping into the buyout market to add Reggie Jackson, a starting-caliber point guard, to their bench unit, and trading for Marcus Morris, the Clippers consider their roster talented and interchangeable enough to match up with all challengers. Friday’s result certainly backed up such belief.

Seven Clippers scored in double figures, led by Paul George’s 24 points.

What they don’t have, however, is a tried-and-true option to stop Jokic, the only player this season to average at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists and who finished with 21 points, nine rebounds and two assists in 25 minutes Friday.

The Clippers swarmed the rest of the overwhelmed roster of the Nuggets (40-19) and, early on, disrupted Jokic’s dribble for a steal and blocked his layup from behind in the game’s opening minutes.

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He punished just the same, scoring 10 of Denver’s first 16 points and grabbing half of the team’s first eight rebounds.

Fans attending the Clippers game Friday will each receive a backpack with a note from Leonard to use the bag as an agent of change for a good cause.

Teams may know Jokic’s tendencies, but the scouting report is never the final word. In the third quarter Jokic, guarded by Kawhi Leonard, a player twice named the NBA’s best defender, caught the ball just outside the key below the free-throw line, dribbled left and leaped off what appeared to be his wrong foot — his left. His shot from 17 feet, taken over Leonard’s outstretched right arm, went in anyway.

It was all of Jokic in one play, and backed up the compliment offered by multiple Clippers earlier Friday when they said that Jokic, like few other players in the league, can put opponents in unexpected positions.

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“He’s a heavy guy but he can handle the ball,” Clippers forward JaMychal Green said. “He got good post work, footwork and he can shoot the ball — so you don’t see too many fives like that.”

In every playoff series, Rivers has said, there reaches a point when every playbook wrinkle has been exhausted and each team knows everything about the other. The greatest players, he added, are those able to impact games anyway. Jokic was included in that class.

“Just watch the game and watch tape of him,” Rivers said. “He has the best tempo. I mean, you can’t rush him. We try to speed him up — you’re not going to speed him up.”

He’s the kind of player coaches surely love watching on their off nights, whether on a sports-bar TV or a hotel-room laptop.

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Far less enjoyable is the prospect of facing him, particularly in a long playoff series, even for a roster as deep as the Clippers.


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