Clippers rally from 18 points down, but let Nuggets pull away

It wouldn’t be a matchup between the Clippers and Denver Nuggets without a comfortable, double-digit lead slowly evaporating into a back-and-forth fight in the final quarter.

Unlike their collapse to the Nuggets in the second round of last season’s playoffs, it was the Clippers who staged the rally this time.

Down as many as 18 points in the third quarter at Staples Center, the Clippers methodically worked their way into only a one-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter behind an 11-0 run over three minutes.

Los Angeles scored only nine points over the final six minutes and Nuggets guard Jamal Murray provided two daggers, sinking a three-pointer for an eight-point lead with two minutes to play, and a jumper with one minute left to go up 10, on the way to a 101-94 win that was Denver’s fourth in a row.

It wasn’t how the Clippers finished that irked coach Tyronn Lue, though. The team had executed like he wanted, just missed shots. His ire was raised that the second-half fight had been missing during the first.

“I didn’t like how we started the game,” Lue said. “I thought defensively we had our guards down, they got everything in transition, they got open threes, they got layups, they got cuts, things that we talked about.”

The Clippers assisted on 17 of their 35 field goals, while Denver racked up 28 on their 39.

“If you hold this team to 101 points, you should definitely win the game,” Lue said.

Murray scored 23 points and Nikola Jokic, a favorite to win most valuable player, had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 24.

The Clippers, who lost their second straight, could have clinched the season tiebreaker with the Nuggets with the victory. Instead, that will be decided when these teams meet for a third and final time May 1.

Five takeaways from the showdown of Western Conference contenders:

Zubac’s good minutes

Ivica Zubac’s eight points and four rebounds, after two early fouls, didn’t reflect the influence he exerted defensively at times. In the fourth quarter, he recorded a block, an offensive rebound, a basket and then capably guarded the tiny Nuggets guard Facu Campazzo too.

“I thought Zu played great,” Lue said. “He called our coverages out, he did a good job on [Jokic] trying to be physical. I thought he even did a good job switching up on Murray a couple times. Zu’s been playing well. … What he’s brought us in that starting lineup has been great.”

Waiting game

Should the Clippers eventually sign free-agent center DeMarcus Cousins, as the team has considered, any deal won’t be possible for several more days because Cousins needs to clear the NBA’s testing protocols. In the interim, and with starting center Serge Ibaka still sidelined by a back injury, that means fewer big bodies available to crash the glass.

Giving up three offensive boards and seven second-chance points in the third quarter undercut an otherwise stalwart defensive effort in allowing Denver only 19 points, but overall it wasn’t offensive rebounds that did in the Clippers. They gave up only seven.

Same guy, new team

The Clippers had success defending Aaron Gordon in January, holding him to four-of-13 shooting — and that plan was essentially worthless while preparing to see him Thursday. A trade from Orlando to Denver changed Gordon’s offensive role from the second option, at worst, with the Magic to typically the third option, at best, with Denver. That’s meant fewer isolations and three-pointers and more cuts around the basket — something that hurt the Clippers all night.

Gordon made five of seven shots in the paint and slipped toward the rim whenever a defender turned his back. That production was crucial for Denver (30-18), because Gordon made only one of his six shots outside the paint on his way to 14 points.

Medical news

The Clippers (32-18) got a dose of good news before tipoff when forward Marcus Morris and Paul George were cleared to play. Morris wasn’t much of a threat, with eight points and also a technical foul late in the first half.

George started slowly offensively before finishing with 17 points.