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The Nuggets came close to making a late comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers, but fell short by one shot. As a result, they fell behind in the race for first place

Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., second from left, rubs his head as he walks back to the bench during a timeout while Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George, left, guard Russell Westbrook, second from left, and Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue stand in the background during the second half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, April 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Michael Malone was ejected with eight minutes left, and the Nuggets nearly erased an 11-point deficit before Nikola Jokic’s buzzer beater missed.

The Nuggets lost 102-100 to the Clippers on Thursday night in Los Angeles, putting them behind Minnesota in the loss column for first place in the Western Conference with five games left.

The Nuggets' reserve players are pushing for Jokic to be MVP.

Luka Doncic may be benefiting from recency bias in his late MVP push, but Nikola Jokic surely strengthened his case during Denver's second-to-last national TV game of the regular season. He scored 36 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and provided 10 assists before missing a challenging shot at the end of the game, similar to one he made against Golden State. But more important than his stats was what happened in the first half without him. After he helped the Nuggets establish a 17-point lead in the first quarter, he started the second quarter on the bench, and the Clippers immediately scored 10 unanswered points. By halftime, the Nuggets were losing 53-49 and needed Jokic on the court for 45 of their points. The Clippers' bench outscored Denver's 21-0 in the first half. Jokic was finally slowed down in the third quarter when he was closely guarded by P.J. Tucker, who has previously defended the MVP center despite being undersized. Tucker guarded Jokic closely on the last play.

Michael Porter Jr. has been largely impressive since the All-Star break, shooting 43.3% from beyond the arc on 6.7 attempts per game leading up to this one. During his last game in Los Angeles, he had a perfect 10-for-10 game from the field against the Lakers.

However, this time was not his night. He made only 2 of 10 3-point attempts, his worst performance in a single game with nine or more attempts since the start of the season. This reflected his team's and others' performance. Denver had plenty of open shots but only converted 43% of them from the field and 31% from long range.

Bricks

The most crucial part of the game might have been late in the third quarter. Christian Braun scored five straight points to reduce a 13-point deficit to eight, inspiring Denver to play strong defense. However, the Nuggets were unable to score. For over three minutes, with Jokic about to take a break, the score was 1-0 in favor of the Clippers.

Malone's ejection and Denver's comeback

With about eight minutes left, Porter missed his eighth 3-point attempt and landed hard, which both he and Michael Malone believed should have resulted in a shooting foul. However, no foul was called. On the other end, Porter left his feet too early but grabbed the rim to avoid a dangerous collision with Ivica Zubac. Although he landed safely, he was still called for a foul, causing Malone to erupt with profanities at the officials. He was ejected, and the subsequent free throws extended the Clippers' lead to 11.

However, if Malone's aim was to motivate his team, it almost worked. The Nuggets slowly reduced the lead, helped by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope's energetic play. He scored two 3-pointers and made an excellent block against Paul George on defense.

Small moments made the difference for Denver in the crucial moments of the game.

There were a few plays and decisions that had a major impact after Denver closed in. Caldwell-Pope, a 91% free throw shooter, missed a free throw that could have helped tie the game after a technical foul on Tucker. This was part of a 68% free-throw shooting night for the team. Acting coach David Adelman attempted to challenge a foul on Aaron Gordon after George seemed to push off, but the referees determined that Gordon had initiated the contact first, nullifying Denver's challenge and giving George an opportunity for free throws.

Gordon, who was physically aggressive throughout the entire game, slipped and fell while attempting to make a potential game-tying drive with 33 seconds remaining. After the Nuggets managed to stop the game on the following possession, neither the player who got the rebound (Peyton Watson) nor the coach (Adelman) immediately called for a timeout. Watson dribbled the ball up the court before Adelman eventually called for one, costing the Nuggets three seconds and putting them in an awkward position for the final play.

Michael Malone was thrown out of the game with eight minutes remaining, and the Nuggets almost recovered from an 11-point deficit before Nikola Jokic’s buzzer beater missed.

Gordon, physically aggressive all night, slipped and fell on a potential game-tying drive with 33 seconds left. And after the Nuggets got a stop on the ensuing possession, neither the rebounder (Peyton Watson) nor the coach (Adelman) immediately called a timeout. Watson dribbled it up before Adelman called one, costing the Nuggets three seconds and leaving them in an awkward inbounding position for the final play.

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