Clippers’ defense not enough against Nuggets as skid continues

Tyronn Lue’s parting words before the Clippers left Monday for Colorado implored the team not to worry about the nine remaining games, but rather focus on the grit they’d played with during their previous 73, the effort that had kept the postseason hopes alive despite largely playing without their two best players.

The Clippers did not “throw it away” Tuesday in Denver, as their coach had cautioned against. But they remained a few defensive stops away from ending a losing streak that now stands at four, their longest in two seasons.

A two-point game with 4:27 to play devolved into a 127-115 Nuggets victory after Denver shot 54% and made half of its 32 three-pointers.

Guard Reggie Jackson said he had gotten “lost” in allowing a three-pointer by Will Barton with 70 seconds to play that pushed Denver’s lead to 11, but the mistake wasn’t a blip and the make not an exception on a night when Denver, so dependent on reigning most valuable player Nikola Jokic, blew up the Clippers’ attempt to rally from down by as many as 14 points by getting timely baskets from its supporting cast.

Bones Hyland made four of six three-pointers off the bench, Austin Rivers made three of five and Monte Morris made all three of his shots behind the arc.

When the Clippers did get stops, they were fleeting. Forward Robert Covington’s spectacular block of Aaron Gordon at the rim with four minutes to play, in a two-point game, looked to give the Clippers a chance to tie the game. But before the ball could be in their possession, Gordon flipped it to Morris in the corner for a three-pointer, and the lead was five.

“They made timely shots down the stretch,” Lue said, “but I thought we played well.”

Missing during the Clippers’ attempted rally was starting forward Marcus Morris Sr., who did not play the fourth quarter. After making four of his first six shots, Morris made only two of his next 10 to finish with 14 points in 28 minutes. Notably, he wasn’t amid Lue’s closing lineups after checking out for good with 12 minutes to play.

Jokic scored 30 points with 14 rebounds and six assists, doing most of his damage in the first quarter when the Clippers were outscored by 10 and Lue took an early timeout out of frustration only two minutes into the game after breakdowns on defense.

“We knew he was going to play well; usually he doesn’t play bad two games in a row,” Lue said.

Clippers guard Terance Mann is defended by Denver Nuggets guard Monte Morris during the second half on Tuesday in Denver.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Terance Mann scored 24 points with eight rebounds off the bench to lead the Clippers (36-38), also contributing four assists with no turnovers. The win pushes Denver (43-30) closer to the sixth seed, and perhaps less likely to meet the Clippers in a play-in tournament game next month, but Lue said the game was helpful for allowing them to test different lineups that could be used in the future.

Jackson scored 14 points without a turnover but didn’t make a three-pointer and said that he would “have to be better.”

By going small and playing a lineup of Nicolas Batum, Morris, Jackson, Mann and Covington, the Clippers rattled off eight unanswered points to trim their deficit to three midway through the second quarter by repeatedly finding Mann on cuts — a layup from the corner on one possession, an assist to Batum for a three-pointer on another.

But when seven straight missed jump shots slowed the Clippers’ momentum, the Nuggets pushed their lead to 12 and led by 11 at halftime by rarely letting the ball stop for long, their passes typically one move ahead of the Clippers’ defensive rotation. By halftime, they’d collected 17 assists — only five fewer than they produced in their last game — to shoot 61%.

It was notable, and subtle, then during the third quarter when Batum set his Jordans a step inside the three-point arc and didn’t allow Jokic any closer to the basket, nor the ball any closer to the reach of the reigning MVP.

From experience guarding centers more than ever this season — including his defense against Jokic to jump-start a 25-point comeback win in January — Batum knew big men prefer to initiate contact, not the other way around, and certainly not so far from the basket. And so he kept on Jokic’s hip as the big man tried freeing himself through a screen, and even after switching onto Clippers center Ivica Zubac, Jokic still could not get the ball.

But it almost didn’t matter. When Jokic didn’t get the ball his teammates did — and they drilled their shots.

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