The Los Angeles Clippers aren't a rival to the Denver Nuggets. They're the defending champion's perpetual punching bag. Denver overcame a 3-1 deficit to defeat them in a 2020 playoff series. The Nuggets have gone 13-2 against the Clippers in their last 15 total games. Last season, all four of those wins came by double digits. At one point in the 2020 collapse, Paul George missed a corner 3-pointer off the side of the backboard. There is no shortage of humiliation here. The Nuggets haven't stopped embarrassing the Clippers since the bubble.
But what happened on Monday? That might be the new low, not just for this non-rivalry, but perhaps this entire era of Clippers basketball. The Nuggets knew early Monday that Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon would sit out against the Clippers. Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic joined them due to lower back pain. Keep in mind, depth is Denver's greatest weakness. Denver has a plus-9.5 net rating with Jokic on the floor this season and a minus-8.3 net rating without him. A home game against the Nuggets without Jokic, Murray and Gordon should be about as easy as NBA games get. It looked even easier on paper as the Nuggets were on the second night of a back-to-back. So, naturally, the Nuggets beat the Clippers, 113-104.
Now, as Nuggets coach Michael Malone noted after the game, "We did it here last year in this building without Nikola Jokic, same thing." That is, technically, true. On Jan. 13, 2023, the Nuggets beat the Clippers, 115-103, in Los Angeles without Jokic. However, Murray and Gordon played in that game, and Paul George didn't. The Nuggets were weaker this time. The Clippers were supposed to be stronger. Instead, the Clippers lost to a pair of opponents whose presence in the upset only further twisted the knife.
This season, Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan have combined to average 15 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5 assists per game in limited minutes. Jackson has started in place of Murray, but will be a backup when this team is healthy. Jordan has barely played. But on Monday? They combined for 56 points, 18 rebounds and 16 assists on 23-of-30 shooting. Jackson and Jordan are both in their mid-30s now, but both of them spent their primes with the Clippers. Jackson was traded by Los Angeles last season. Jordan left as a free agent in 2018. The pair combined for five alley-oops. This video says more than words ever could.
In the grand scheme of things, November losses are rarely critical. The Clippers are 7-9. That's far worse than they expected or hoped, but it's only four games out of the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. On paper, the Clippers are still very fixable.
But basketball isn't played on paper. For the past three years, the Clippers have proven completely incapable of beating the one time you have to beat in order to win the Western Conference. In fact, their one victory over the Nuggets in the past three calendar years was somewhat similar to this one. On Jan. 11, 2022, Los Angeles (without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) eked out an 87-85 victory over Denver, who shot an abysmal 12% from 3. Big picture? The Clippers' cornerstone duo hasn't beaten the Nuggets since 2020.
The new stars weren't exactly better on Monday. James Harden shot 3-of-7 from the field in 36 minutes while turning the ball over three times. Russell Westbrook added four turnovers and the Clippers lost his 27 minutes by 11 points. The Clippers never move or pass on offense. They can't defend guards either.
No November loss ends a season, but this one was about as damning as it gets. It was everything wrong with a team that has done everything over the past four seasons and everything right about the defending champions all compressed into 48 minutes. Denver's D-listers stepped up when called upon. The Nuggets did everything they needed to do in order to win shorthanded. If the Clippers can't even pull themselves together enough to beat Denver's bench at home in November, what chance will they have against their real team in April or May?