Clippers can take advantage of Ailing Nuggets

Jan 21, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Juancho Hernangomez (41) defends against Los Angeles Clippers center Marreese Speights (5) as guard Mike Miller (3) looks on in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 123-98.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets knew the fight for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference was going to be tough.

It just got a little tougher for them as their injuries pile up.

Denver (32-35) is riding a three-game winning streak into Thursday’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers, but to extend it to four it will take some doing. The Nuggets are going to be without leading scorer Danilo Gallinari with a left knee injury as well as Wilson Chandler (groin), their third-leading scorer, and Darrell Arthur.

Gallinari suffered a bone bruise when he collided with a Lakers’ player during Denver’s 28-point win Monday and he is considered day to day. Chandler has already missed one game and Arthur has been in and out of the lineup to rest his sore knees. It means Denver will have its seventh different starting lineup in the 12 games since the All-Star break.

The one bit of good news is the possible return of Kenneth Faried. Faried has missed the last nine games with lower back spasms but was able to sit on the bench Monday night, which showed he was improving.

He’ll be needed to help stop Clippers power forward Blake Griffin. He is L.A.’s leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, but the issue with him has been health. He has missed 20 games this season, 19 because of his right knee.

Griffin had 18 points in Thursday’s 97-96 home loss to Milwaukee.

Griffin isn’t the only one Denver will have to worry about. Point guard Chris Paul returned from a thumb injury three weeks ago and is starting to heat up in the stretch run of the season. He scored a season-high 30 against Utah on Saturday but still hangs his hat on his defense.

“My mindset coming out every game is defense,” Paul told The Los Angeles Times after Monday’s loss in Utah. “I’m usually guarding the guard who’s going off ball-screens. Usually that’s the head of the snake. So, unfortunately tonight, I let George Hill (19 points) get going. So offense is what it is. But I go into every game thinking about defense.”

That mindset is important against Denver, which is third in the league in scoring and is one of the best teams in terms of offensive efficiency. The catalyst of the offense has been 22-year-old center Nikola Jokic, but the power forward Mason Plumlee has also played well since coming to Denver from Portland on Feb. 12.

Plumlee had his second straight double-double Monday and has shown off his passing ability. In fact, Denver has become a pass-happy team, as its 36 assists against the Lakers indicates. It was one less than the team’s season high despite no one getting more than seven assists.

“My favorite stat is the 36 assists on 45 made field goals,” coach Michael Malone said after the win. Everybody got in on the act. Gallo had five, Gary Harris had seven; it was a group effort. When we defend and play like that, and we’re so unselfish, good things happen.”

The Nuggets didn’t get much help in the race for the last playoff spot. Portland, which has caught fire of late, won at San Antonio and trails Denver by just two games.

The teams have one more game against each other, March 28 in Portland, and it could go a long way to determining the final postseason seed.

L.A. (40-28) is safely in the middle of the playoff standings, but it needs a win to stay within three games of Utah for the fourth spot. The Jazz and Clippers are on track to meet in the first round, and whichever team has the better record will have homecourt advantage for the seven-game series.

“At this point, we know every game is important. Every game matters,” Griffin told The Los Angeles Times. “You try not to get too caught up in it, but when it comes down to the last couple of games, it seems like the last three years or so there’s been so much shifting, even on that last day.”