The Nuggets flirted with disaster then revealed why they might be more dangerous than they were last season.
The Clippers stormed back from a 12-point fourth quarter deficit and threatened to snap Denver’s winning streak at three. Instead, Denver’s two clutch performers, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, staved off the collapse. The Nuggets survived 101-94 on Thursday night to extend their winning streak to four. Now 30-18 and winners of 12 of their last 16, the Nuggets look poised to challenge for one of the top seeds over the final 24 games of the regular season.
Murray buried a few of his clutch jumpers en route to 23 points, while Jokic offered 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Both were vital as the Clippers stormed back to within one possession numerous occasions down the stretch.
Newcomer Aaron Gordon added 14 points, six rebounds and six assists, in addition to physical, incessant defense against Los Angeles’ wings. Will Barton was integral as well, finishing with 14 points and three 3-pointers in 34 minutes.
As a team, the Nuggets held the Clippers to just 40% from the field, and All-Star Paul George shot just 5-of-15 for 17 points. The Nuggets dished 28 assists on their 39 field goals.
Despite Gordon draped all over him, Kawhi Leonard eventually found space. It came in the third quarter, with the Clippers trailing by double-digits, but Leonard managed to get to his spots. After a flurry of jumpers, coupled with seven Nuggets turnovers, Los Angeles had trimmed the deficit to seven. The run marked one of the few moments all game Denver looked out of sorts.
But before the quarter ended, Jokic found an easy basket off a Gordon offensive rebound to help the Nuggets re-establish control. They took an 81-70 lead into the fourth, having not let their foot off the pedal like they did Tuesday night against Philadelphia.
While Jokic and Murray were both superb over the last month, Nuggets coach Michael Malone lauded the leaps he’s seen specifically from Porter.
“It’s been a huge step in all areas, offensively and defensively,” said Malone, who sought out Porter on the flight to Los Angeles on Wednesday.
“I was breaking his chops because he’s shooting 66% from the foul line, which you would never expect from a great shooter, and that’s what he is,” Malone said. “I think he’s had some great defensive games, against really good players. … And then offensively, he’s not pressing. He knows he’s going to play 35 minutes most nights. The ball’s going to find him, we’re gonna run plays for him. So I think he’s just really settled down. I think also he understands how important he is to this team.”
In the last 15 games, Porter’s averaged over 20 points and nine rebounds per game, including 54% shooting from the 3-point line. His confidence, on both ends, was brimming.
The Nuggets’ offense hummed like it has all season, but it was their suffocating defense that built them a 62-49 lead at the break Thursday night. With Gordon spearheading the assignment on Leonard, it allowed Barton to handle George and Porter to match up against Marcus Morris. All three were more than capable of the first-half coverage.
And with defense as their anchor, the Nuggets’ offense sizzled. Gordon and Porter moved seamlessly off the ball, revolving around Jokic’s vision to set them up. Denver racked up 17 assists on 23 made field goals, led by four each from Jokic and Facundo Campazzo.
By the end of the half, Porter (14), Barton (13), Murray (13) and Gordon (10) were all in double figures.
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