Los Angeles Clippers: Denver Nuggets
LOS ANGELES -- J.J. Hickson caught a bounce pass from Ty Lawson and went up for a dunk. Blake Griffin, the closest help defender, instantly recovered and met Hickson at the apex of jump, blocking his shot.
Hickson grabbed the loose ball and gathered himself under the rim. With Griffin off balance and out of the play, Hickson went up again.
Swat. DeAndre Jordan rotated over and erased the layup, which ultimately led to free throws for Griffin on the other end.
As the Los Angeles Clippers continue to grasp coach Doc Rivers’ defensive schemes, these sequences have become commonplace; the Clippers had nine steals and eight blocks for the game. More important, the win column validates Los Angeles’ recent progress.
The Clippers held the Denver Nuggets to just 35.2 percent shooting in L.A.’s 112-91 win Saturday night, protecting the rim and thwarting a pick-and-roll attack, thanks in large part to Griffin's and Jordan’s activity. Despite entering the game with the 11th-most efficient offense, the Nuggets shot under 40 percent in each of the first three quarters and would have struggled to crack the 85-point mark if not for Wilson Chandler’s (19 points) monster first half.
With the victory, the Clippers (19-9) have won four in a row -- tied for their longest streak of the season -- and held seven of their last nine opponents to 95 points or less.
How it happened: The Clippers held the Nuggets to 29.2 percent shooting and led by 13 points at the half after Darren Collison nailed an over-the-shoulder buzzer-beater. Denver scored the first seven points of the second half to narrow the gap to six points, but Los Angeles responded with a commanding 23-10 run to end the third. The fourth quarter saw both teams play little defense and combine for 64 points, with the Clippers’ second unit outplaying the Nuggets’ reserves and stretching the final margin to 21 points.
What it means: After a disappointing 12-7 start, the Clippers are rolling -- they’ve won seven of their last nine games and established themselves as clear favorites for home-court advantage in the West. With Matt Barnes back and J.J. Redick likely to return in the next two to three weeks, and the Clippers’ defense continually rising in the defensive efficiency rankings, Los Angeles is rounding into full strength.
Hits: Jamal Crawford scored 27 points, going 6-for-12 from deep.
Griffin scored 24 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and dished out four assists.
Chris Paul also chipped in a double-double, with 10 points and 11 assists.
In his first game back, Barnes scored 13 points (three 3-pointers) and added two steals and three blocks.
Misses: The Clippers were sloppy with the ball, turning it over 17 times.
Denver scored 31 points and shot 52.9 percent in the fourth quarter.
Stat of the game: Six. That’s how many fast-break points the Nuggets -- who play at the seventh-fastest pace and average 13.9 fast-break points per game – were held to by the Clippers.
Up next: The Clippers host the Minnesota Timberwolves -- whom they already have defeated twice this season -- on Sunday. They have Monday and Tuesday off before traveling north to face the Golden State Warriors on Christmas day.
The Clippers have accomplished so much already this season, but so much is still to be decided Wednesday night in Sacramento. The Clippers, on a seven-game win streak, are already a lock for the playoffs so Wednesday’s game isn’t exactly for all the marbles, but there are some pretty big ones still rolling around out there.
A victory Wednesday night at Sacramento would clinch home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs for the Clippers and they still have an outside shot of moving up to the No. 3 seed and an easier first-round matchup.
Securing home court and moving up to the No. 3 seed depends on one thing, however: The Clippers have to win.
“You can speculate and think about this and the other thing, but at the end of the day you have to go out and you have to earn it,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “No one is going to give it to you. If they do, we’ll take it, but right now our mindset is we’re going to go earn it and it’s not going to be an easy game.”
The scenarios for the Clippers (55-26) on the last day of the regular season are three-fold:
1. If the Clippers win and the Denver Nuggets (56-25) lose to the Phoenix Suns (25-56), the Clippers would tie the Nuggets, earn the No. 3 spot because they are the Pacific Division champions and get home court in the first round against the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets.
3. If the Clippers and Memphis both lose, the two would meet in the first round of the playoffs with the Clippers holding home court advantage.
“We’re not set in stone in one seed,” Chris Paul said. “All the previous 81 games led up to [Wednesday] so [Wednesday] is another big game for us.”
The Nuggets and the Grizzlies both play early enough Wednesday that the Clippers will have an idea of the situation by the time they tip off at 7:30 p.m. in Sacramento. Surely they will be scoreboard watching but they say they must prepare as if Memphis and Denver will both win.
“We have to take care of our business and that’s all we can do,” Matt Barnes said. “There are some other games that have an effect on what we do, but if we go out and take care of our business, nothing too bad will happen to us.”
The odds are against the Clippers moving up to the No. 3 seed. The Nuggets and Phoenix are playing in Denver, where the Nuggets boast an NBA-best 37-3 home record. Phoenix, meanwhile is at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and is tied with Sacramento for fewest road wins in the conference.
Memphis is also at home for its game against the Jazz. The Grizzlies are 31-9 at home this season while Utah is 13-27 on the road. One thing going in the Clippers favor is that Utah is playing for its playoff life. The Jazz must win and hope the Lakers lose in order to make the post season.
One thing working against the Clippers is the situation in Sacramento. The Kings (28-53) are among the bottom three teams in the Western Conference and a pedestrian 20-20 at home this season, but the fans will surely be out in full force Wednesday because it could be the last game for the Kings in Sacramento. The team is contemplating a move to Seattle so the game will carry some emotion.
The Clippers embrace that.
“I hope it’s going to be crazy,” said Barnes, who played for the Kings in 2004-05. “I hope the fans really come out and support that team. It’ll be a hostile environment similar to the playoffs so we’ve got to go in there and keep our composure and play good basketball.”
The only thing that really matters to the Clippers, however, is getting a win.
“It’s not about the environment,” Del Negro said. “It’s about us locking in and executing and slowing them down in areas and transition defense. We’ve got to go in with the right mindset, the right level of intensity that needs to be executed and if we do that we’ll have more opportunity.”