It was all there for the Denver Nuggets. They’d welcomed back injured star forward Paul Millsap after more than three months on the shelf with a torn ligament in his wrist, watched as Millsap and Mason Plumlee turned in dynamic performances off the bench, and ridden the attacking of wings Will Barton, Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler to a commanding 19-point lead over the visiting Los Angeles Clippers with just over four minutes to go in the third quarter on Tuesday night. Just lock in for the final 16 minutes at home, and you’re cruising to a win that helps you keep pace in the chaotic tangle that is Everything Below Houston and Golden State in the Western Conference Playoff Race.
With 4:06 remaining in the third quarter and the Nuggets leading 82-63, Doc Rivers sent in the subs. Out came DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Sam Dekker; in went Montrezl Harrell, Tyrone Wallace and Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 Serbian center who has briefly sparked rapt interest among NBA fans during his three stateside seasons. Despite routinely producing at pretty remarkable levels every time he touches the floor, the 29-year-old giant has largely been relegated to the bench in San Antonio, Detroit and L.A., only rarely getting the call to run (likely due to concerns about how the mammoth pivot would hold up on the defensive end in larger minutes).
Well, he got the call on Tuesday, and he answered it, completely overpowering Denver’s big men in the paint and on the glass. His towering frame and soft finishing touch around the basket, combined with Harrell’s relentless energy and the playmaking craft of Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic, helped the Clippers chip away at the Nuggets’ lead until, just two minutes into the fourth quarter, it didn’t exist anymore. (That Mike Malone had burned through all but one of his timeouts earlier in the game, leaving him unable to call one to stop the bleeding, certainly didn’t help Denver’s cause much, either.)
Between Doc’s line change at the 4:06 mark of the third and the eight-minute mark of the fourth, the Clippers absolutely blitzed their hosts, outscoring Denver 48-26 in just over eight minutes of basketball to completely take over the game.
When you are the Nuggets, and you think the game is in your grasp. pic.twitter.com/Rk7SxsTzUR
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) February 28, 2018
The reeling Nuggets made a last-gasp push down the stretch, fueled by 21 points by the backcourt of Murray and Harris. But a struggling defense that has been the second-worst in the NBA over the last 15 games just could not find an answer for Boban, Williams and Teodosic in the high screen-and-roll, as the Clips kept getting whatever they wanted just about every trip down the court. Denver’s last chance at an equalizer or winner fizzled when Murray lost the handle on his closing-seconds drive, allowing L.A. to come away with a massive come-from-behind 122-120 win that left the Nuggets and the Pepsi Center crowd stunned, and shifted the bottom of the Western bracket.
After playing a total of one minute in his eight games as a Clipper after coming over in the Blake Griffin trade, Marjanovic played 15 of Tuesday’s final 16 minutes and dominated them. He scored 18 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field and an 8-for-9 mark from the free-throw line, grabbed six rebounds (five on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive), snagged two steals, blocked a shot and dished an assist. L.A. outscored Denver by 27 points in his 15 minutes of playing time. He completely changed the game, and he felt good about that.
For the Nuggets, though, the mood was a little different.
“That was just a very disappointing way to lose a game tonight,” Malone said, “when you played well enough to build a lead like you did (at) 19 points and then to give it all back and then some. […] “Every possession matters, and right now, we don’t play like every possession matters. We play like we’re up 19 and we can take a possession off. That lead went from 19 to 10 like that.” […]
“Right now, we can’t guard anybody,” Malone said. “I’ve said it before, right now our defense is embarrassing. Those numbers can’t happen with 21 games to go and you’re trying to compete for a postseason berth.”
It did happen, though, and that leaves the Nuggets in a pretty precarious position.
Denver now sits ninth in the West at 33-28, percentage points behind the eighth-place Clippers (32-27). By losing on Tuesday, the Nuggets also conceded their season series to the Clips, ensuring that L.A. will have the head-to-head tiebreaker should the two teams finish with the same record … and, in a playoff race in which 5 1/2 games separates the third seed from the 10th, those tiebreakers could become very, very important. (As it stands, Denver holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over the New Orleans Pelicans, and tied its season series with the San Antonio Spurs and Utah Jazz. The Nuggets dropped their first two meetings with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but have two more coming in the final week of the season, and hold 2-1 edges over both the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder, with one last game against each over the season’s final six weeks.)
Making matters worse, Denver’s staring down the barrel of an unforgiving closing slate. Thirteen of the Nuggets’ final 21 games will come on the road, where they’re just 9-19 this season with a net rating (-5.1 points per 100 possessions) a tick worse than the abysmal Memphis Grizzlies‘ full-season mark. That schedule includes a seven-game, 14-day road trip between St. Patrick’s Day and the end of March that features meetings with five teams fighting for playoff positioning: the Miami Heat, Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, Toronto Raptors and Thunder.
Everything could flip by the weekend, of course. The Clips face a brutal back-to-back on Wednesday when they take on the league-leading Houston Rockets, while Denver opens up a three-game road trip on Friday against those circling-the-drain Grizz. The once-red-hot Jazz have dropped two of three since the All-Star break. The Pelicans could be ripe for a cool-down if Anthony Davis ever remembers that he is, in fact, human. While the Nuggets just got Millsap back, the Wolves just lost Jimmy Butler, and the Spurs are still dealing with the Kawhi Leonard fiasco. Stuff can get nuts fast in the West, and the Nuggets still profile as a better-than-a-coin-flip bet to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight, Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.
But whether or not the odds seem to be in your favor, you have to take advantage of golden opportunities when they arise. Presented with one on Tuesday night, Denver blinked, and now, come mid-April, we might find ourselves wondering just how much else about the state of the Nuggets changed when Boban checked in.
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