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Clippers keep it closer this time, but fall to Nuggets again

LOS ANGELES — There would be no blowout this time. No victory either.

Coach Tyronn Lue had said a day earlier that the rematch with the Denver Nuggets would show what the Clippers were made of, something of a challenge to his team after last week’s 31-point debacle in Denver.

The Clippers met the challenge, giving a solid effort on both sides of the ball, but it wasn’t enough to upend the Western Conference-leading Nuggets. Denver beat the Clippers, 115-103, prevailing for the eighth time in their past nine meetings.

And the Nuggets (29-13) managed to put away the Clippers (22-22) without their top player. Two-time league MVP center Nikola Jokic stayed behind because of injury management, but the Nuggets still had Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who leads the league in 3-point shooting.

“We know he’s (Jokic) a two-time MVP,” said Lue, whose team has lost seven of its past eight games. “He brings a lot to this team, but they’re still a very good team without him. So, we must lock in, have a defensive mindset playing the right way on both sides of the floor for 48 minutes. That has to be our mindset.”

The Clippers held that thought for a half but might have been guilty of letting their minds wander briefly midway through the third quarter as the Nuggets switched to a zone defense, capitalized on a handful of turnovers and went on a 9-2 run to take an 81-74 lead. It didn’t get much better as the Clippers trailed, 86-81, at the end of the third.

Bruce Brown, Murray and Gordon took control of the game in the final quarter, extending the Nuggets’ lead to 104-92 with 5:34 left and they maintained a double-digit lead until the final two minutes.

Despite turning the ball over 11 times in the second half, the Clippers managed to close the gap to seven before Porter made two free throws to push the Nuggets ahead 112-103 with 1:10 left.

“We talked about getting back in transition against this team because they’re really pushing it and without Joker in the game they really play faster,” Lue said. “We can’t have 11 turnovers for 19 points.

“I thought we walked around and walked to our spots and got in the offense late (in the second half) and so it’s hard to score when you’re doing that. And then I thought the zone hurt us a little bit as well in that second half.”

Murray finished with 24 points on 8-of-17 shooting, eight rebounds and four assists, while Porter added 22 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Gordon added 17 points as the Nuggets shot 50% from the field and 42.4% from behind the arc.

Kawhi Leonard, playing in his third consecutive game, led the Clippers with 24 points, while Norman Powell continued his hot streak with 18 points, including three 3-pointers. John Wall and Marcus Morris Sr. each had 16 points.

“I think the effort is there,” Leonard said. “The execution part wasn’t in that second half.  We just come out of timeouts having turnovers. I think we had nine or 10 turnovers in the second half, so we need to just make sure we don’t have those careless turnovers and we take care of the ball and have a chance to shoot it at the rim.”

The Clippers, who were still without All-Star Paul Geroge (ankle) and Luke Kennard (calf), received a gift earlier in the day when the Nuggets announced Jokic would not be playing. But even without the All-Star center, the Clippers needed to stay focused if they hoped to avoid a similar outcome that they experienced a week ago.

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The Nuggets routed the Clippers in Denver on Jan. 5, a game the players were reminded of plenty leading up to tipoff.

In his pregame talk, Lue stressed the need for focus. Forget who’s not on the other side of the court, concentrate on defense, be physical and lock down Gordon and Murray.

“I mean their team changes, but it doesn’t change our mindset, what we have to do,” Lue said. “This team is just way too comfortable against us, and we got to come out with a defensive mindset and a physical mindset.”

Message received.

The Clippers stuck to their defensive mindset to hold onto a 58-57 lead at halftime.  After the Nuggets started the game by hitting four of their first seven 3-point attempts, they struggled to get shots to land from long range. They made just three of their next 12.

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