In a building where nobody seems to defeat Nikola Jokic, much less outplay him, Paul George and the new-look Clippers came as close as anyone has this young season.
In one of the most physical, intense games so far of their title defense, the Nuggets escaped the Clippers, 111-108, with a 17-5 run to erase a seven-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
Jokic finished with 32 points, 16 rebounds and nine assists but was contained to those numbers on 8-of-23 shooting thanks to a variety of coverages Los Angeles threw at him, culminating in smaller matchups down the stretch such as P.J. Tucker. The constant was physicality — the Clippers seemed content to send Jokic to the line if necessary in order to prevent him from having his way in the post. He didn’t score a field goal in the second half until midway through the fourth quarter, and he committed a costly turnover in the last 30 seconds that allowed Los Angeles to cut the lead to 109-108.
George wedgied a would-be tying 3-pointer with 5.3 seconds left, and Jokic won the ensuing jump ball to run out the clock.
Denver (9-2) trailed 99-92 in the fourth, but a gritty rally tied it at 102 with 2:24 remaining. It required Jokic bullying his way around George for a second-chance bucket. Aaron Gordon scored a three-point play for the lead with 1:37 left, and ex-Clipper Reggie Jackson’s driving layup kept the lead 107-104 into the last minute.
George was the best player on the blue-and-yellow in-season tournament floor most of the night. He scored 35 points while James Harden added 21, but the Clippers lost their sixth consecutive game and fifth since trading for Harden.
The Nuggets lead Group West B in the tournament with a 2-0 record, followed by Houston (1-0). They visit New Orleans (1-1) on Friday.
Denver opened up a 13-point lead late in the second quarter that remained 60-52 at halftime, in spite of a combined 10-for-25 shooting half from Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Gordon. Porter, the team’s second-best scoring option sans Jamal Murray, was limited to only one point at the half after averaging 23 in the previous five games. But the team’s backups, in need of a pick-me-up, picked Porter up.
Jackson scored 14 in the half on eight shots, and he finished the game with 18. He blew by Harden for a crafty reverse layup, continued to refine his mature give-and-go timing with Jokic and ran the offense efficiently with three assists and zero turnovers at the break. The bench scored 13 in the half, surpassing its scoring total from the entire game Sunday in Houston (eight).
Jalen Pickett was a major factor. Michael Malone gave him a shot at backup point guard behind Jackson after running with Collin Gillespie the previous four games since Murray’s injury. Pickett scored five in the first quarter, including an isolation three over Ivica Zubac, and was mostly solid at finding open teammates.
But the Clippers chipped away throughout the third. After a brief Denver burst to go up 76-70, Ty Lue called a Malone-esque timeout. Los Angeles quickly answered with a 14-5 run. But at the end of the quarter, Harden strangely allowed an inbound pass to roll all the way across the timeline before picking it up and immediately draining a 3-pointer. It left four seconds for Gordon to answer with a one-legged three to tie it at the buzzer, the difference in the game.