The Los Angeles Clippers had a chance to kick off their eight-game road trip with a fantastic win over the Denver Nuggets. Unfortunately, it was stripped away by some extra plays made by Nikola Jokic and a few calls that didn't go their way and had head coach Tyronn Lue not happy.
The Clippers fell in overtime, 130-128, on Wednesday, with a running, game-winning 3-point attempt from just inside the half-court line by Reggie Jackson bouncing just off the backboard and front rim. A hard-fought effort by the shorthanded Clippers in arguably their best game of the year wasn't enough, and it was felt after the game.
Lue took a few minutes to get to his postgame press conference, but didn't immediately speak. Instead, he uttered a few words under his breath as he sat down and stared at the box score. A clearly irritated Lue then politely requested a water from a Clippers staffer, which he took turns gulping between looks at the box score.
About a minute and a half had gone by before Lue finally put down the water, collected himself, and began his postgame press conference.
“I just thought our guys came out and competed,” Tyronn Lue said in his opening remarks. “We played great. I'm glad I had a chance to calm down for a second because I was gonna say some stuff I shouldn't have said. But our guys battled. No matter who's on the floor, who's playing, we're gonna compete every single night. Hat's off to our guys, for what we did, and you know, whatever after that.”
A few minutes later, when asked about the first-half play and how well the big men played, Lue mentioned it again.
“Like I said, our guys battled, we fought. Like I said before, I'm glad I've had a chance to calm down before I said some things I didn't say. But I'm pretty sure you guys see it as well.”
Lue never explained what he was looking at or what frustrated him the most. If you watched the game, you'd know exactly what it was.
The Clippers took 21 shots in the restricted area and 26 in the rest of the painted area. In what has been a bit of a struggle for them at times this season, they repeatedly found ways to attack the Nuggets, get in the paint, and score. As a team, they scored 64 points in the paint, but they only shot 12 free throws the entire night.
The Nuggets took 37 shots in the restricted area and 15 in the rest of the paint. They also scored 64 points in the paint, but they finished with 25 free throws on the night. Nikola Jokic shot 16 of them by himself.
Another interesting yet somewhat confusing stat showed the Nuggets took 98 shots to the Clippers' 97, even though Denver had 13 more free throw attempts, just one more offensive rebound, and just two fewer turnovers. The game was so unhinged, the numbers don't completely add up.
The Clippers entered Wednesday's game with the lowest opponent free throw attempt rate, and they were facing a team that had the second-worst free throw rate. To put it simply, the Clippers were the best team in the NBA at keeping opponents off the free throw line, while the Nuggets were the second-worst team at getting to the line themselves.
The Clippers were visibly frustrated with the officiating for much of the second half, which is when Jokic took 14 of his 16 free throws. To his credit, he was much more aggressive and picked his spots tremendously, but a number of calls irked Lue and the Clippers as they tried to find some way to stop the 2020-21 season MVP.
His monster night was capped off by the assist that gave him a triple-double — a cross-court, overhead pass beyond the outstretched arms of two defenders to Aaron Gordon in the left corner for a 3 and the win. Jokic finished with 49 points, 14 rebounds, 10 assists, and three steals in overtime, while Aaron Gordon, who had been struggling shooting the ball, made four of his seven 3-point attempts en route to 28 points. Gordon had made just eight of his last 31 attempts from beyond the arc in his last 10 games.
“Not too many [can make that pass],” Lue said of Nikola Jokic's skip pass. “Probably him and LeBron are probably the only two guys. At the end of the game — the game being tied, we're not gonna let the best player beat us, he made a hell of a skip pass and AG made a big shot, so hat's off to them.”
Nikola Jokic ➡ Aaron Gordon 🚨
This time for a Nuggets game-winner over the Clippers 😎pic.twitter.com/gLiENuN1xK
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 20, 2022
As great as Jokic was, Clippers center Ivica Zubac was there to match him as much as he could. The Croatian big man finished with a career-high 32 points to go along with 10 rebounds and three assists. His continued aggression offensively allowed the Clippers to stay in the game and counter Jokic's all-around performance.
Zubac had one big block on Nikola Jokic in the fourth quarter, but it came on a play that was originally ruled a foul, which would've been Zubac's sixth of the contest. Tyronn Lue immediately walked out on the court, disgustingly signaling for a review.
Despite playing well on both ends, Zubac's efforts weren't enough, and his flabbergasted response postgame showed just how tough of a guard Jokic is.
“I don't know, man, it's tough,' Zubac said of guarding Jokic. “It's tough. The ball goes to him every possession and he got so many moves and you gotta, you gotta be ready at all times and you can't relax for a second. And as soon as he feels like you relaxed for a second, you're not, you know, 100% ready, he goes. Doesn't always look pretty, but he's quick, he got all the moves in the post and, you know, if you're not ready for it, and he goes quick, he puts you in a bad spot and the only thing you can do is try not to foul him. But he's very good at getting that contact and getting those calls.”
“The ball goes to him every possession. He got so many moves & you gotta be ready at all times. You can't relax for a second. As soon as he feels like you relax for a second, you're not 100% ready, he goes. Doesn’t always look pretty, but he’s quick.”
Ivica Zubac on Nikola Jokic pic.twitter.com/JuLtUWybmP
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) January 20, 2022
Lue loved the way his big man performed, even in the loss.
“I thought Zu played a hell of a game, all night, along with our other guys as well, and just battling, competing. 15-for-19 from the field, when they went small, was able to take advantage of them a little bit when they put Jeff on him, but I thought Zu was great all night and was able to play their coverages pretty well, getting any shot we wanted. They made more plays down the stretch than we did.”
Reggie Jackson also impressed, making tough shot after tough shot and keeping the Clippers in it all night. He finished with 28 points and 12 assists on 12-of-22 shooting from the field. Jackson had been in a shooting slump since returning from health and safety protocols on New Year's Eve. His streak of 14 games shooting under 46 percent ended with the 54.5 percent shooting night, and he's hoping a renewed mindset will allow him to find his rhythm again.
“I think I found out I got to play with a certain force,” Jackson said of his recent offensive aggression. “I've been letting guys off the hook trying to go around guys necessarily, instead of moving guys off the line and then punching the gaps. So for myself, I'm just trying to attack more, fortunate enough to make some plays, but like I said that's my teammates doing a great job of spacing, setting screens for me, allowing me to get downhill, attack guys. The bigs been doing a great job of screening in and allowing me to attack bigs as well and just been fortunate to get some shots to go but, really, like I said, just trying to play aggressive to get our offense moving, get the ball moving and allowing us to get some open shots.”
"Had somebody running their mouth out there quite a bit… 'Jackson, you're nothing.’ I'm not gonna lie, I love playing at home in front of our fans, I really do, but I love the hate. I love it. I LOVE being hated."
Reggie Jackson on a couple of Nuggets fans trash talking. pic.twitter.com/Svs8YVvGLm
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) January 20, 2022
Prior to Monday's win over the Indiana Pacers, Jackson went through a private, brief pep talk with Tyronn Lue in his locker room office.
“Go have fun,” Lue told him. “Forget everything else, just go have fun.”
Despite the loss, Jackson remained confident that his Clippers would be ready to bounce back with Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on deck Friday night.