It was all there for the Denver Nuggets. They’d welcomed back injured star forward Paul Millsap after more than three months on the shelf with a torn ligament in his wrist, watched as Millsap and Mason Plumlee turned in dynamic performances off the bench, and ridden the attacking of wings Will Barton, Gary Harris and Wilson Chandler to a commanding 19-point lead over the visiting Los Angeles Clippers with just over four minutes to go in the third quarter on Tuesday night. Just lock in for the final 16 minutes at home, and you’re cruising to a win that helps you keep pace in the chaotic tangle that is Everything Below Houston and Golden State in the Western Conference Playoff Race.
With 4:06 remaining in the third quarter and the Nuggets leading 82-63, Doc Rivers sent in the subs. Out came DeAndre Jordan, Austin Rivers and Sam Dekker; in went Montrezl Harrell, Tyrone Wallace and Boban Marjanovic, the 7-foot-3 Serbian center who has briefly sparked rapt interest among NBA fans during his three stateside seasons. Despite routinely producing at pretty remarkable levels every time he touches the floor, the 29-year-old giant has largely been relegated to the bench in San Antonio, Detroit and L.A., only rarely getting the call to run (likely due to concerns about how the mammoth pivot would hold up on the defensive end in larger minutes).
Well, he got the call on Tuesday, and he answered it, completely overpowering Denver’s big men in the paint and on the glass. His towering frame and soft finishing touch around the basket, combined with Harrell’s relentless energy and the playmaking craft of Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic, helped the Clippers chip away at the Nuggets’ lead until, just two minutes into the fourth quarter, it didn’t exist anymore. (That Mike Malone had burned through all but one of his timeouts earlier in the game, leaving him unable to call one to stop the bleeding, certainly didn’t help Denver’s cause much, either.)
Between Doc’s line change at the 4:06 mark of the third and the eight-minute mark of the fourth, the Clippers absolutely blitzed their hosts, outscoring Denver 48-26 in just over eight minutes of basketball to completely take over the game.
The reeling Nuggets made a last-gasp push down the stretch, fueled by 21 points by the backcourt of Murray and Harris. But a struggling defense that has been the second-worst in the NBA over the last 15 games just could not find an answer for Boban, Williams and Teodosic in the high screen-and-roll, as the Clips kept getting whatever they wanted just about every trip down the court. Denver’s last chance at an equalizer or winner fizzled when Murray lost the handle on his closing-seconds drive, allowing L.A. to come away with a massive come-from-behind 122-120 win that left the Nuggets and the Pepsi Center crowd stunned, and shifted the bottom of the Western bracket.
After playing a total of one minute in his eight games as a Clipper after coming over in the Blake Griffin trade, Marjanovic played 15 of Tuesday’s final 16 minutes and dominated them. He scored 18 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the field and an 8-for-9 mark from the free-throw line, grabbed six rebounds (five on the offensive glass to keep possessions alive), snagged two steals, blocked a shot and dished an assist. L.A. outscored Denver by 27 points in his 15 minutes of playing time. He completely changed the game, and he felt good about that.