The 8-2 Nuggets host the reeling Los Angeles Clippers tonight at Ball Arena in Denver’s second in-season tournament game. Prepare yourself accordingly for the blue alternate court. What’s tonight’s key storyline and does anything scare you about a Clippers team that’s winless since the James Harden trade? DNVR Nuggets discusses.
What are you watching for tonight vs. the Clippers?
Adam Mares: Can Denver’s bench score in transition? The Clippers turn the ball over a lot. They’re discombobulated since the arrival of James Harden. There’s an opportunity for the bench unit to rediscover their old identity of getting stops and running in transition. I don’t think that they are miraculously going to become a great half court unit on offense but they can be an elite defensive team, especially at hime and especially in emotional games like the one they should expect Tuesday night with the yellow brick road court.
Harrison Wind: Can the Nuggets exploit the Clippers’ small ball lineups? Denver’s going to have a big size advantage tonight. The Clippers’ starting frontcourt features Kawhi Leonard, Paul Geroge and Ivica Zubac. The Nuggets will counter with Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic. This should be a prime opportunity for Denver to establish Aaron Gordon in the paint, rack up a few quick and early fouls on George or Leonard, and take control of tonight’s game in the first quarter. Denver should dominate in the paint and on the glass all night. That’s the Nuggets’ key to victory.
Brendan Vogt: What does the bench look like? Malone tried the Porter and Gordon staggers after Jackson + the bench failed to score in the first half in Houston. That’s probably the next step in improving life without Murray, and it seems like Malone knows it. Still, the rotation is in flux right now. It’s possible Malone hasn’t settled on anything. He might also value the repetitions for his youngsters over the quick fixes. Denver is 9-2, after all.
Does anything about the Clippers scare you?
Mares: Not really. I just don’t see them figuring things out in a meaningful way. They’re a soulless team full of players who have proven unwilling throughout their careers to do the unheralded parts of the game that are required to win a championship. Even their talent may be overstated given that all of their key players are over the peak of their prime. But even if it isn’t, there is no evidence that they will ever sacrifice for each other in the ways that would be required to compete with a team like the Denver Nuggets.
Wind: Their desperation. It’s the only thing that can win them tonight’s game. For as soulless as the Clippers are, they’re still a roster of 15 individuals who are embarrassed that they haven’t won a game since the James Harden trade and have lost five in a row overall. A desperate team plays hard, which I know is difficult to envision a Harden-centric Clippers team doing. I’m expecting them to play up to the level of the Nuggets, at least early on from an effort standpoint. That’s how Los Angeles wins tonight.
Vogt: No. The preexisting concern about the viability of the roster without Jamal Murray matters more than any other reason for losing. The Clippers might hit enough jumpers or put together an inspired effort and catch Denver off guard — chaos happens in the NBA. But Denver owned this matchup before James Harden got there and still does on paper. The Clippers have to instill fear. That won’t happen overnight. They can’t PR their way into a psychological edge.
Are you a fan of the in-season tournament?
Mares: Yes. I’m all in. My enthusiasm might wane if the Nuggets drop a few games and fall out of contention. But right now, it looks like the Nuggets will join other premiere teams like the 76ers, Bucks, Wolves, and Celtics in Las Vegas for what will feel like a competitive and significant tournament in December. And there is certainly more intrigue in Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers than there would be if it weren’t a tournament game.
Wind: Everyone’s scared to say it, but the in-season tournament is a hit. It’s awesome. The alternate courts — while a little overboard — were the right decision because these games now feel slightly different and have a new meaning assigned to them. Once we get to the knockout round, I’m expecting the intensity to rachet up even more. Guys will want to win the in-season tournament. They’re not saying it now, but you’ll see it soon enough. There will be positive tweaks in the future I’m sure, but for a first-year endeavor, it’s a huge success so far.
Vogt: It’s doing what it’s designed to so far. Teams appear to be taking it seriously. The games feel more intense. And it’s allowed for fun conversations, like the chances of a new-look, try-hard Rockets squad emerging from the pool of death. Such conversations can increase interest in the intermediary stages of team building and the games those teams play as they form their identities. And these games could go a long way towards helping more casual fans keep up with the league. The Rockets are a great example here. They’re no contender, but considerably better than the casually informed would assume based on their recent years as bottom-dwellers. A strong in-season tournament run would reflect that, which could rally support at the local level and create additional coverage on the national scale.
Lodged between the doomed and those deemed worthy of our attention are most of the teams in the league. Some of them have serious organizational momentum. Others tangled in a web of their own decisions, presenting a puzzle to solve for all the basketball-obsessed. A handful of teams like these can still produce entertainment on the court and feed the ancillary media machine.
The tournament should shine a light on those teams. And almost everything I’ve described is supplemental to the immediate success of the event — as a fan, you really don’t want your team to lose these games. Once they tip off, that’s how the average fan feels. And, I suspect, what the average cynic would concede if they weren’t angrily committed to their side of the argument.