Clippers, without Nicolas Batum, can’t close out Nuggets in overtime

Clippers without Nicolas Batum cant close out Nuggets in overtime

Gulping a bottle of water to calm the fury inside him, Tyronn Lue waited before speaking at a postgame dais, as visibly upset as the coach had appeared since becoming the Clippers coach in 2019.

Twice after a 130-128 overtime loss to the Nuggets in Ball Arena, Lue said he was glad he had paused himself, “before I said some things I shouldn’t say,” he said. “But I’m pretty sure you guys seen it as well.”

Lue was furious at officials, at Denver star Nikola Jokic taking 16 free throws, four more than were taken by the entire Clippers roster, after staying in the game despite charging an official during the first half and being held back by his coach. After a defensive three-second call to open overtime, he had yelled at official Brandon Adair, asking “how can you call that?”

He was upset because it had marred a game played in Denver’s thin air, amid even thinner margins. The Clippers came in waves despite playing without Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum. They pushed the ball on battering-ram drives by Justise Winslow, their lead on put-back baskets from Ivica Zubac and the tension throughout the fourth quarter and overtime through one-on-one isolations pitting guard Reggie Jackson against Jokic, the reigning most valuable player.

But on a night when their contributions came from everywhere, they were undone because Jokic provided nearly everything for the Nuggets in a 49-point, 14-rebound, 10-assist masterpiece that was called by a high-arching pass that traveled easily 45 feet, from in front of the Nuggets’ bench, over a long-armed double team of 7-foot Zubac and 6-8 Amir Coffey and toward the opposite corner, where Aaron Gordon waited.

Gordon’s three-pointer with 2.2 seconds left in overtime broke a 127-all tie, all because of a pass that Lue said only Jokic and LeBron James likely could have made.

The shot sent the crowd into hysterics and sent Nuggets reserve Davon Reed sprinting off the bench, too, mistakenly believing the game was over — drawing a technical foul, which pulled the Clippers within two points. But Jackson’s half-court heave at the buzzer did not fall, and all of the Clippers’ (22-24) plays to open their eight-game trip were effectively washed away.

Zubac scored a career-high 32 points, with 10 rebounds, including eight points in overtime after nearly fouling out in the final minutes of regulation, saved only by a replay review. Jackson added 28 points.

Despite playing without Morris (personal reasons) and Batum (health and safety protocols), despite three turnovers within their first six possessions, and making just one of their first seven three-point attempts, the Clippers took the lead and grew it to 14 in the second quarter by doing something they’d failed at in these teams’ first two meetings — winning the minutes when the Nuggets were most vulnerable.

In the six minutes that Jokic spent on the bench the Clippers outscored Denver by 11, the result of Winslow barreling down the court, looking every bit like an energized player who hadn’t played in a week, creating open looks, then catching a lob for a dunk from Isaiah Hartenstein.

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson drives past Nuggets center Nikola Jokic in the second half Wednesday in Denver.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Playing in Denver for the first time since the Nuggets traded him to Cleveland last season, Hartenstein ignited a second unit that outscored Denver by 14 points in his first seven minutes, and when he dunked for a nine-point lead in the second quarter, Nuggets coach Michael Malone called for a timeout he hoped would place a bandage over the team’s defensive gashes.

It didn’t stem a 21-2 run, amid which Brandon Boston Jr. punctuated two three-pointers by looking over his shoulder and offering retorts toward a spectator seated in the third row whose wide-brimmed hat made him easy to pick out for Clippers running back on defense after made baskets.

The Clippers soon had more pressing issues than a fan’s heckling. Jokic scored 10 points in the third quarter’s first six minutes to pull Denver within two behind a 12-1 run. Sitting on the Clippers bench, guard Terance Mann was soon whistled for a technical foul. Then Jokic earned his own by charging Adair and might have been ejected if not for Malone rushing onto the court to restrain his best player from getting any closer.

When the Clippers lost their lead following free throws from Jokic with two minutes left in the quarter they had not made a field goal in seven minutes. The Nuggets’ run, which ultimately reached 22-3, canceled out all of the Clippers’ first-half momentum. The teams entered the fourth quarter tied.

With four minutes to play, Boston and Jackson were chest-bumping at midcourt after Boston’s fourth three-pointer pushed the Clippers ahead by eight, their lead generated by Jackson’s one-on-one isolations against Jokic. When Jackson drove at Jokic with 38 seconds left, his floater pushed the Clippers ahead, 114-112, but after a tying basket, the Clippers gave Denver one last chance to win in overtime with 2.9 seconds left after a hesitation by Mann led to a shot-clock violation. It wasn’t damaging — Jokic’s baseline jumper as time expired misfired.

He played the role of closer over the next five minutes, scoring 11 points in overtime, with five rebounds.

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