Clippers, Nuggets set to clash at less than full strength – Daily News


Injuries have piled up throughout the NBA this season, and neither the Clippers nor the Denver Nuggets have been immune; there’s been a small mountain of them in both camps.

And so, at significantly less than full strength, the teams will meet Saturday night at Staples Center for a tie-breaking third game. The playoff seeding stakes are significant: Denver (42-21) sits just a half-game behind the Clippers (43-21), who currently have possession of the third seed in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers – who have had players miss a total of 124 games because of injury this season – could be without three of their season-opening starters.

All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard has missed nine of the Clippers’ past 10 weighty, late-season contests and is questionable to play Saturday due to right foot soreness. Out for certain: guard Patrick Beverley (with a fractured hand) and center Serge Ibaka (back tightness). Reserve wing Amir Coffey also will miss the game due to coronavirus healthy and safety protocols.

Denver has dealt with a substantial number of physical maladies, too: Nine games ago, the Nuggets lost star guard Jamal Murray, their second-leading scorer, to a season-ending torn ACL.

Put that – and starting guards Monte Morris and Will Barton’s recent absences, both on account of right hamstring strains – toward the 169 total games missed by Nuggets.

“It’s been new for me,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before the team went through a “mostly mental” day at practice Friday, noting that at his previous head coaching job in Cleveland, “we had guys in and out throughout the course of the season … but to have this many guys out at the same time is different, and this late in the season, the same thing.

“In Cleveland, we always thought as long as we’re healthy, we’re in good position. I feel the same way about this team. If we’re healthy, we showed that we can win games, we showed we played well on both sides of the basketball, and we had a rhythm. But when guys started going down, they haven’t been back for a while, so it’s been a long time since we had our whole team.”

As it goes, for all the doors that have closed this season, windows have been flying open.

Ask Terance Mann, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Ivica Zubac and DeMarcus Cousins, who have all found themselves among the Clippers’ committee of guest stars.

Ask the Nuggets’ Michael Porter Jr., who has stepped up as a co-star.

If it seemed as though the Nuggets’ postseason prospects might be sunk without Murray – who was averaging 21.2 points per game, and whose bubble heroics last season helped propel Denver (past the Clippers) to the Western Conference finals, where Denver lost in five games to the eventual champion Lakers – Porter Jr. has proved a buoyant force.

For the season, the confident 6-foot-10 small forward is averaging 18.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in 53 outings.

In the nine games since Murray’s season-ending setback – a span in which Denver is 8-1 – Porter Jr. has played the part of Nikola Jokic’s scoring sidekick, averaging 25.7 points per game. (Jokic’s points per game average, meanwhile, has held at an absolutely steady 26.2).

And Porter Jr.’s been efficient about it: Since April 14, he’s shooting 56.7% from the field and 50.7% from 3-point range (on more than 8 3-point attempts per game).

Austin Rivers – the former Clipper who is the Nuggets’ newest member, signing on for the rest of the season Friday – has been impressed with what he’s seen of Porter Jr. from his front-row seat.

“He has greatness in him, everyone sees that,” Rivers told reporters over Zoom. “He’s 6-10 with one of the best jump shots in the league.”

And, yes, the Clippers are cognizant of Porter Jr.’s impact.

“The biggest thing key with Barton going out and Murray … is Michael Porter Jr. has really stepped up,” Lue said. “He is really playing well. He is taking some of the load and pressure off of the Joker, just being aggressive offensively.

“We know Joker makes everybody on the floor better, so we gotta make sure we focus on how we cover and defend him. But we really got to lock in on Michael Porter Jr.”

And Denver, of course, will do well to try to lock in on Clippers All-Star Paul George, who in the past 10 games is averaging 28.5 points, 8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, mostly without his co-star to lean on.

“It’s been a long time since we had our whole team,” Lue said. “But we’ve kind of been plugging away, and when we get to the playoffs, who we got is who we got, and we’re gonna be ready to roll no matter who’s on the floor, we’ll be ready to go, no excuses.”

NUGGETS (42-21) at CLIPPERS (43-21)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Where: Staples Center

TV: Bally Sports West, ESPN




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