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Shai Gilgeous-Alexander shines in debut, but Clippers struggles late

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nuggets

LOS ANGELES – The L.A. Clippers fell to the Denver Nuggets in their 2018-19 regular season opener on Wednesday night, 107-98. Tobias Harris led the way for the Clippers with 19 points, 10 rebounds and three blocked shots. Boban Marjanovic addled 18 points and eight rebounds in just under 18 minutes of action off the bench.

First half defense, late game execution, and a lack of rebounding is what eventually did the Clippers in.

“Defensively I thought a lot of it was our offense,” said Rivers. “When you miss layups and turn the ball over, a lot of them were layups at the rim was an automatic break at the other end. Early in the first half I was disappointed in our transition defense. I thought we got that cleaned up and then we ended up taking the lead.”

Lou Williams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander started the fourth quarter in what was a 74-74 tie and led the Clippers to a 92-84 lead with a little over five minutes remaining. After a couple of quick Nuggets baskets, Rivers sensed that both needed a breather and inserted Avery Bradley as well as Patrick Beverley to try and put some more defensive pressure on Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.

“I thought they needed a blow,” added Rivers. “They’d been playing for a while and Denver had scored the last two times down the floor, so I knew I was going to burn a timeout so I went with the defense and unfortunately we didn’t get a stop with the defense.

“The thing that stood out to me was what I said before the year: can we close games? Tonight we didn’t do that. We had a lead, we had to go offense-defense a little bit and then down the stretch we really just didn’t get good shots.”

It was an entertaining game if you didn’t take a look at some of the uglier stats in the game. L.A. shot just 40.1 percent from the field, allowed 14 offensive rebounds, committed 32 fouls, and allowed the Nuggets to shoot a whopping 42 free throws.

“The positive is that we shot 40%, and they didn’t play well either offensive and were going to have nights like that, where you don’t play great offensively. We missed shots that I would take. Pat Beverley is a plus 40% three point shooter and he had them all night and he just didn’t make em. Gallinari had some and Tobias had some. Your offense will fail you at times, the defense can’t. I thought overall, we gave ourselves a chance to win on a night that we couldn’t get the ball to go in, so that would be the positive for me.”

Gilgeous-Alexander had a spectacular debut, finishing with 11 points, two rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block on 5-of-6 shooting in a little over 28 minutes. His game went beyond the box-score, however, displaying a confidence level surprised some while making moves that a rookie shouldn’t be able to make.

“I thought he did the best job of going downhill, getting into the paint, and either finishing or making plays out,” said Rivers. “A lot of times, we drove to score instead of driving to create action, and I thought Shai stood out as one guy who kept making the right plays, so that was nice to see.

The rookie out of Kentucky, however, was relatively level-headed following the game, focusing a lot on where he and the team could’ve improved as opposed to the positives in the loss.

“I feel like it stuck a little bit tonight,” said Gilgeous-Alexander after the game. “There’s moments myself, that I remember, where I would’ve made one more [pass]. I’ll personally watch film and get better in those situations. I know the rest of the guys will as well and we’ll fix it. For the next game, it won’t be an issue.”

He wasn’t on the floor for the final four minutes of the game, but he did get some crucial fourth quarter minutes that helped build the Clippers’ lead in the first place. His 28 minutes was third highest behind Harris’ 40 and Gallinari’s 34. Some of it may have to do with Beverley’s foul trouble, but it was an encouraging sign nonetheless.

“Shai’s gonna play a lot,” said Rivers. “Shai’s a good basketball player, I don’t think we should be surprised if he plays a lot of minutes.”

Next up, the Clippers will take on the listing Houston Rockets on Friday night. They’re coming off a 131-112 loss at home to the New Orleans Pelicans.