10:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Clippers -6, Over/Under: 219.5
A major clash of western powers is on tap tonight from the City of Angels, as the Los Angeles Clippers play host to the Denver Nuggets from STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. Coming into tonight’s meeting these teams represent the Second and Third Seeds in the Western Conference, with just one game separating them in the Standings. After announcing themselves last season, the Nuggets (40-18, 2nd in Western Conference) appear to have become a fixture out West moving forward, as they’ve overcome a recent stretch of injuries only to maintain their lofty standing within the conference. Fortunately for Mike Malone’s charges, they’re nearly completely healthy, which couldn’t come at a better time as they embark on the stretch run of the campaign. Winners of six of their last eight outings, Denver may not possess a bonafide superstar (like their opponent tonight), but what they lack in star power they more than make up for in strength in numbers, for out of all the contenders in the West they are easily the deepest. Eleven different players have logged at least 13.0 Minutes per Game, with six of them scoring in double-figures, and five of which netting over 34.0% of their attempts from beyond the arc. This is a case in which having to deal with injuries provides a Coaching Staff with the opportunity to cultivate precious depth, which is something that Malone & Co. have seized. Their Starting Backcourt of Jamal Murray (18.9 PTS, 45.7% FG, 34.1% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 18.0 PER) and Gary Harris (10.2 PTS, 39.9% FG, 30.7% 3FG, 2.9 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.3 STL, 9.0 PER) have each missed ten games apiece, affording the likes of young Point Guard, Monte Morris (8.5 PTS, 46.5% FG, 38.7% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 3.6 AST, 15.5 PER), more minutes to develop, while the absence of versatile Forward, Paul Millsap (12.1 PTS, 48.2% FG, 44.2% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 1.6 AST, 18.2 PER), has granted playing time to Jermai Grant (11.5 PTS, 47.5% FG, 39.3% 3FG, 3.6 REB, 1.1 AST, 14.2 PER) and last year’s Frist Round Pick, Michael Porter Jr. (7.9 PTS, 50.8% FG, 41.9% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 19.3 PER). Of course, the latter is considered the crown jewel of the club’s many young prospects, exhibiting a tantalizing skill set within his lengthy 6-10 frame. However, after missing nearly all of his lone collegiate season at Missouri followed by the entirety of his rookie campaign rehabbing from back surgery, he’s been brought along by the Training Staff at glacial pace, only recently seeing an increase in his minutes on the court. Since becoming a regular contributor in the Rotation in late December, the 21-Year Old has flashed his considerable potential, averaging 11.5 Points on 53.7% shooting from the field, including 45.5% from downtown, 6.1 Rebounds, and 1.0 Assist in just under twenty minutes a night. With Millsap expected to depart in the Offseason via Free Agency, Porter figures to be the long term partner of All-Star Center, Nikola Jokic (20.8 PTS, 50.8% FG, 33.2% 3FG, 10.0 REB, 6.8 AST, 1.2 STL, 25.7 PER), who has been the Nuggets’ constant through this series of maladies. The massive Serbian’s star turn in 2018-19 served as the catalyst for Denver’s run to the Western Conference Semifinals, where they came just one game away from advancing beyond, and this season has consistently exhibited the unique skills for one his size to make him a matchup nightmare for slower Bigs and undersized Forwards, missing zero games thus far. Perhaps his most valuable asset is his ability to initiate the Offense from the Elbow or from the top of the Key, where the 25-Year Old is adept at hitting cutters or finding an open shooter, which became vital with Murray and Harris on the mend. Seriously, how many Centers in NBA History can you recall leading their team in Assists (6.8)? When we last saw Jokic, he and the Nuggets really took it to the Detroit Pistons in an easy 115-89 victory from Pepsi Center, where they shot a blistering 57.9% from the field, including 9-of-19 from long range (47.4%), and assisting on a healthy Thirty-Three of their Forty-Four Field Goals. It was a fairly understated showing for the two-time All-Star, totaling Sixteen Points, Five Rebounds, Four Assists, and Four Steals in just 27:59 of play, but then again that’s all that his side really required of him, as the aforementioned Grant and Porter came off the bench to combine for Forty-Two Points, with the former posting a game-high Twenty-Nine on a ridiculous 12-of-15 shooting (80.0%). Both teams were rather sloppy with the basketball accounting for a combined Thirty-Four Turnovers between them, but only one team turned those mistakes into opportunities in Transition, with the hosts outscoring the visitors 15-2 in that regard, while utterly dominating in the Paint, 60-32. Tonight’s showdown with the Clippers will be the second of three meetings this season, with the caveat being that with a victory at STAPLES Center they will own the head-to-had tiebreaker which could become absolutely decisive given how close they are in the Standings. Denver win their previous encounter 114-104 in Colorado back on January 12th, thanks in large part to a massive Second Quarter in which they outscored the visiting 37-22, and seven different players scoring in double-figures, led by none other than Jokic with Twenty Points alongside Fifteen Rebounds and Six Assists.
Meanwhile, the final five weeks of the Regular Season is shaping up to be something special as the Clippers (39-19, 3rd in Western Conference) look to use that period of time to not only ascend in the Standings but also to get healthy and build the requisite chemistry necessary to make a lengthy run in the Playoffs. After all, that is what everyone expected them to do once they made waves in the Offseason by acquiring All-Stars, Kawhi Leonard (27.1 PTS, 46.3% FG, 36.9% 3FG, 7.7 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.8 STL, 26.7 PER) and Paul George (21.0 PTS, 42.0% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 5.9 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 19.7 PER), the former in Free Agency and the latter via Trade. Los Angeles was a surprise entrant in the Postseason last year and gave the Golden State Warriors everything they could handle in their First Round Series with a vastly superior roster short on star power, so it’s only natural to think that Doc Rivers’ new group of charges would be better suited to challenge for what would be the franchise’s first NBA Championship. Of course, they’re better suited to accomplish that task. That’s not the point in question. What is a concern is that they’ve played fifty-eight games and have yet to truly reach their lofty potential in large part to injuries, load management of certain players (ahem, Kawhi), and the additions of more new faces to their growing Rotation. For those out there who hold team chemistry in the highest esteem, this particular cast of characters is utterly fascinating. Not only did they completely upend their Roster to acquire Leonard and George (which was a no-brainer), but the recent trade for Marcus Morris (11.7 PTS, 42.4% FG, 35.5% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.0 BLK, 8.7 PER) coupled with the signing of Reggie Jackson (8.3 PTS, 42.9% FG, 38.5% 3FG, 2.3 REB, 3.7 AST, 12.1 PER) only brings more new faces into the fold for Rivers and his Coaching Staff to integrate. Is there enough minutes (and shots) for everyone? Can anyone tell what their ideal Starting Five will be come the Playoffs? Will they have enough time to get everyone on the same page? These are all very legitimate questions that need to be answered over the final twenty-four contests for as we’ve seen in the past, the pairing of superstars doesn’t always lead to immediate rewards, it takes time to cultivate said chemistry. And there is no better example of this than the fact that the two-man combination of Leonard and George has only featured together 614:16 thus far, which is the thirteenth most-prevalent combination on their roster, or in other words, has been on the court together for a scant 21.9% of game time. Due to Offseason Shoulder Surgery and other varying maladies, George has missed twenty-two games, while Leonard has yet again seen his playing time managed, which has been the case ever since his missed nearly the entirety of the 2017-18 term due to significant injuries to his Right Quadriceps and Shoulder, not to mention persistently butting heads with the San Antonio Spurs’ Medical Staff. With that said, they’re sitting just one game behind the Nuggets for Second in the Western Conference, and six back of catching their neighbors at STAPLES Center, which is rather remarkable itself. Furthermore, they’re 18-7 with both players in the Starting Lineup, their recent play of late may grant further credence to the argument that they’ve yet to fully get on the same page; Los Angeles lost four out of five games during a stretch that bookended the All-Star Break, with all but one of those defeats occurring with Leonard and George both active. During that stretch they relinquished season-worsts of 142 and 141 Points in losses at the Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics, though it should be noted that the latter of the two affairs was decided in Double-Overtime. Fortunately, they managed to turn things around with back-to-back victories over the Memphis Grizzlies (124-97) and most recently the Phoenix Suns (102-92). Rivers’ troops overcame a slow start in which they were outscored 21-29 in the First Quarter, turning the tables on the hosts in the following period, in which they earned a 33-20 advantage that they wouldn’t relinquish despite the young Suns’ advances. This was a case in which one of the potentially toughest defensive teams in the league flexed their muscles on that end of the floor, relegating the hosts to a dismal 39.1% shooting from the field, including 9-of-34 from beyond the arc (26.5%), and forcing Sixteen Turnovers. They also never allowed their opponent to get out and push the tempo, limiting them to a mere Four Fast Break Points, which has long been a staple of Rivers’ defensive strategies. Essentially, rather then send his Guards to crash the Glasson missed shots in an attempt to secure an Offensive Rebounds, the venerable Head Coach instead has them drop back on Defense to prevent open opportunities in Transition. Five different players scored in double-figures for the Clippers, led by Leonard with Twenty-Four Points on 7-of-17 shooting, along with Fourteen Rebounds, Five Assists, and Three Steals. George struggled en route to Eleven Points on a disappointing 4-of-13 shooting (30.8%), but did offer Four Assists and Three Steals of his own, though in the end the biggest takeaway was the play of the newcomers, Morris and Jackson, who combined for Thirty Points on 10-of-20 shooting (50.0%), including 6-of-12 from downtown (50.0%), Seven rebounds, and Four Assists.