The wounds from Friday’s double overtime were still fresh when the Clippers climbed aboard their Los Angeles jet around noon on Saturday.
Just about 13 hours earlier, their lead of 14 in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter, six in overtime and six again in double overtime had all been resolved in a bitter loss for a Sacramento team that needed it to keep pace with the standings of the Western Conference.
The top-seeded Denver waited. But within a minute of the team’s plane taking off, a bolt of lightning struck it, as the staffers felt the engines momentarily quiet before revving for a steep climb into the clouds. When everyone got out in Denver, a noticeable smudge along the tail, the site of the attack, was stripped of its paint.
What followed Sunday night at Ball Arena was another shock start and bumpy ride, a 134-124 overtime loss for the Nuggets that capped off a bitter 48 hours that no one saw the events coming.
Trailing the West’s top team by 18 in just the first quarter, the Clippers came in four in the third quarter, only for a flagrant foul to begin a disastrous trajectory. Two minutes later, their deficit was 14.
Using a patchwork of lineups—with starting center Ivica Zubac losing his second straight game—the Clippers claimed their first lead with only four minutes remaining on a twisting drive from Paul George that also resulted in a free throw.
When the Clippers couldn’t correct the rebound off a deep swell by Jamal Murray to beat a nearly expired shot clock, the Nuggets made the pass to Michael Porter Jr. -118 lead.
George, who had missed another two critical free throws in Sacramento on Friday, made two free throws to force a tie with 23 seconds left, and after a miss by Denver in the dying seconds, he threw a swell from beyond the half of the court that swung – but the ball had been in his hands as the final seconds passed.
In overtime, the Clippers’ resilience fizzed, they missed all five of their shots, their four points coming from free throws alone.
Kawhi Leonard scored 33 points, Paul George had 23 and Russell Westbrook scored 17, with five rebounds, five steals and four assists. But unlike Friday, when coach Tyronn Lue kept Westbrook in during the critical minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, Westbrook did not play after checking out with 1 minute and 21 seconds left to play in the third quarter.
With a new rotation, the Clippers could not solve a years-long problem of holding off Denver superstar Nikola Jokic, who could be on his way to winning the league’s Most Valuable Player title for a third straight season. Without Zubac, the Clippers tried to defend him with Mason Plumlee to start, but at halftime they switched to forward Nicolas Batum, whose long arms and trickery successfully gave Jokic the ball and desired position. But Jokic scored 40 points with 17 rebounds and 10 assists, and 15 of his points came in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The loss left the Clippers 33-30 and swept in all four games against Denver, who are 9-2 against the Clippers since meeting these teams in the 2020 Western Conference Semifinals.
The drama started long before extra time.
Traded to Charlotte before the NBA’s February 9 trade deadline in exchange for Plumlee, before being subsequently bought out and signed with Denver as a free agent, former Clippers guard Reggie Jackson walked through Ball Arena security three hours before the tip .
Jackson, who spent his high school years in Colorado Springs, wore a down jacket and trucker hat and struck up a conversation with nearly every staffer he passed, as was his custom with the Clippers.
Right behind him through the arena’s metal detector was Bones Hyland, who went from all-rookie with the Nuggets last season to go for the second round with the Clippers months later, a trade that accelerated as the team and the rookie turned a blind eye. . eye for his role.
Denver didn’t seem disappointed with Hyland’s loss to a conference competitor. Nuggets coach Michael Malone heaped praise on Clippers backup center Mason Plumlee, himself a former Nugget, before tipping off, citing his professionalism, but when asked about Hyland, Malone curtly replied “I wish him all the best” before a team official ended Malone’s media. availability.
In an era where NBA teams congratulate every returning celebrity player with tribute videos, Hyland stared at the arena’s hanging scoreboard during the first timeout break, but a digital welcome never came. Angry, however, did it every time Hyland touched the ball. In contrast, Jackson’s first Denver performance as a Nugget was met with rousing applause and the public speech announcer’s message of “welcome back, honey!”
Hyland hadn’t played on Friday, Westbrook’s debut pushing the 22-year-old further down the depth chart, but with five minutes left in the first quarter, Hyland was brought in to leverage his microwave score to pull the Clippers back from what had already been an 18. – points short. Gone was the heartfelt gesture Hyland had flashed to fans during warm-up, replaced by an icy look at some of the fans on the field after his first three-pointer, and after a second another look at the coaching staff and the bench of the nuggets. The energy was vital, the Clippers’ 11 fast-break points in the second quarter were essential to not allow a repeat of January 13, when Denver quickly jumped ahead by double digits and broke the Clippers by halftime.
Hyland scored 10 points, Jackson seven, but both were ultimately subplots of the bigger story of what Malone also specifically said before the tip: that these teams, separated by three places in the standings, were nonetheless the same and had to establish their identities with the the last remaining quarter of the season.