Clippers return to .500 by rallying to beat Denver Nuggets

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One-quarter of the way through the Clippers’ season, taking stock of the team is like looking into a funhouse mirror — each glance revealing something different, even contradictory.

Their roller-coaster ride continued Wednesday when the Clippers, one of the worst performers in close games this season, had every answer for defending champion Denver down the stretch of a 111-102 victory that moved them to 10-10, the first time they have been at .500 in a month.

It was the Clippers’ first win against Denver since Jan. 11, 2022, and only their second win in their last 13 games in the series.

And it came against a full-strength Nuggets team that, while missing three key players only nine days earlier, had waxed the Clippers on the same Arena court.

This time the Clippers secured their second consecutive double-digit comeback by holding Denver to 20 fourth-quarter points, outscoring the Nuggets by 12.

In one key moment, the kind that largely had been missing in crunch time in past matchups against the Nuggets, Paul George collected a rebound off a Nikola Jokic miss and James Harden found Kawhi Leonard for a short jumper. On the next possession Harden stole a pass by Denver’s Jamal Murray and outran a full-body dive by Aaron Gordon to collect a loose ball and find Leonard on a fastbreak for a dunk and a 99-93 lead with 3:36 to play. Denver needed a timeout.

George scored a team-high 25 points, while Harden had 20 points and a season-best 11 assists. Leonard scored 17 points.

If the teams’ history wasn’t ominous enough, the first quarter supplied even more angst: The Clippers made fewer field goals (nine) than Denver had assists (12), a 15-point gap in Denver’s favor explained by extreme shooting variance — Denver made eight of 10 three-pointers, the Clippers one of nine. It called to mind what coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff.

“We play too many games down, so guys got to be ready when our number’s called,” Lue said.

They were ready by the second quarter.

For the second consecutive game, Harden was the first starter to go to the bench before the midway point of the first quarter in order to bring him back to start the second with a reserve-heavy lineup that, according to the Clippers’ thinking, should allow Harden to be more comfortable orchestrating the offense to his liking.

The shooting trend did not hold. In the second quarter, the Clippers made all six of their three-pointers while Denver missed each of its seven as the Clippers’ 15-point deficit became a Los Angeles lead that grew to as many as nine. With four minutes before halftime, the Clippers took their first lead behind a 16-2 run and Harden’s increasing comfort — he finished with nine points and six assists, for 15 more Clippers points, in the second quarter alone.

The performance defied a seasonlong trend. The Clippers entered the night ranking 19th in net rating during second quarters, the difference between points scored and given up per 100 possessions.

Russell Westbrook was plus-six in the fourth quarter and key to the comeback, finishing with nine points and eight rebounds, but was substituted out when Harden checked back in. It marked the first game in which Westbrook and Harden’s playing time did not overlap at all.

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