Griffin may return when Clippers face Nuggets (Jan 21, 2017)

The Denver Nuggets are seven games below the .500 mark but feel a sense of optimism. The Los Angeles Clippers are 14 games above the even mark and are feeling some angst.

Perspective and expectations have everything to do with the opposite views as the two teams get ready to play Saturday night at Pepsi Center.

The Nuggets (17-24) are coming off a 14-point loss in San Antonio on Thursday that stopped their three-game winning streak. Denver was missing four players but still made it a game against the 33-9 Spurs, a loss that did little to diffuse the enthusiasm the team had after outscoring three straight teams and putting together an impressive offensive display.

Still, fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference means Denver has to play better and take care of the ball.

“Proud of the effort,” coach Michael Malone told The Denver Post after the loss. “We just have to know that if we want to be a playoff team and eventually a championship team we have to have discipline and we cannot beat ourselves.”

The Nuggets scored “only” 104 points against San Antonio after averaging 130 in three wins. Denver’s offense has been explosive since Malone inserted Nikola Jokic at starting center. The 21-year-old Serbian has set career highs in scoring in three straight games, culminating with his 35-point performance against the Spurs.

He’ll present a challenge for the limping Clippers (29-15), who are coming off a 104-101 home loss to Minnesota on Thursday night. Los Angeles had its seven-game winning streak snapped and lost for the first time in the calendar year.

There could be more losses on the way. Forward Blake Griffin has been out since Dec. 20 after having right knee surgery and star point guard Chris Paul is expected to miss 6-to-8 weeks after having surgery to repair torn ligaments in his left thumb on Wednesday. The Clippers are 2-6 without Paul this season, and while Austin Rivers played well in the loss, he isn’t the same player as Paul.

“I’ve got to continue to be aggressive — nothing really changes,” Rivers told The Los Angeles Times after scoring 20 points against the Timberwolves. “I do what I do. You can’t be anybody else. I can’t be C.P. I’m a different player than him, and he can’t be me. There’s certain things I can do that he can’t do, and there’s a lot of things C.P. does that me or Ray (Felton) can’t do.”

There is a chance Griffin will return Saturday. Coach Doc Rivers told The Los Angeles Times that Griffin sprinted at full speed before Thursday’s game and was expected to do some contact work at the team’s practice facility Friday, although the team was not practicing before leaving for Denver.

If he can’t play Saturday, the possibility is there for him to come back later in the four-game trip that ends Saturday night in Golden State.

Without Griffin, the Clippers are 1-1 against Denver this season. The Dec. 26 Nuggets win came during L.A.’s six-game losing streak that preceded its winning streak. Denver was at full health then but it’s not the case now.

The Nuggets were without their two leading scorers Thursday, Danilo Gallinari (ankle) and Wilson Chandler (personal reasons), their best perimeter defender in Gary Harris and forward Darrell Arthur. Harris suffered a sprained right ankle against Orlando on Monday and is progressing but is still questionable for Saturday. Malone said he didn’t expect him to be out much longer.

“Initially there was more concern but he’s reacted petty well, responded well to some of the treatment,” Malone said.

There’s a chance Gallinari and Chandler will be back Saturday. Paul won’t, and it is an issue for a team that has a .293 winning percentage all-time without him.

“As a team, we’re just got to keep playing and try to win as many games as possible until we can get back to full strength, hopefully sometime in March,” J.J Redick told The Los Angeles Times.