The wounds from Friday’s double-overtime loss were still fresh when the Clippers climbed aboard their jet in Los Angeles around noon Saturday.
Only about 13 hours earlier, their leads of 14 in the fourth quarter’s final minutes, six in overtime and six again in double overtime had all dissolved into a bitter loss to a Sacramento team they needed to keep pace with in the Western Conference standings.
Top-seeded Denver awaited. But within a minute of the team’s plane taking off, a bolt of lightning struck it, as Clippers staff and airline crew members felt the engines momentarily quiet before revving up for a steep climb into the clouds. When everyone got off in Denver, a noticeable splotch along the tail, the site of the strike, had been stripped of its paint.
What followed Sunday night in Ball Arena was another jarring takeoff and bumpy ride, a 134-124 overtime loss to the Nuggets capping a bitter 48 hours whose events no one saw coming.
Trailing by 18 to the West’s top team in the first quarter, the Clippers pulled within four in the third, only for a flagrant foul to begin a disastrous stretch. Two minutes later, their deficit was 14.
Using a patchwork of lineups — with starting center Ivica Zubac missing his second consecutive game — the Clippers claimed their first lead with only four minutes remaining in regulation on a winding drive by Paul George that resulted in a free throw as well.
When the Clippers couldn’t corral the rebound from a deep heave by Jamal Murray to beat a nearly expired shot clock, the Nuggets whipped the pass to Michael Porter Jr. for a go-ahead three-pointer with 27 seconds to play and a 120-118 lead.
George, who had missed two critical free throws Friday again Sacramento, made two free throws to force a tie with 23 seconds left, then after a miss by Denver in the final seconds, threw a heave from past half-court that swished — but the ball had been in his hands as the final seconds ran off.
In overtime, the Clippers’ resilience fizzled, missing all five of their shots, their four points derived from free throws.
Kawhi Leonard scored 33 points, George had 23 and Russell Westbrook scored 17, with five rebounds, five steals and four assists. But unlike Friday, when coach Tyronn Lue kept Westbrook in during critical minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime, Westbrook didn’t play after checking out with 1 minute 21 seconds to play in the third quarter.
With a new rotation, the Clippers could not solve a yearslong problem of stopping Denver superstar Nikola Jokic, who could be on his way to winning the NBA’s most valuable player honor for a third consecutive season. Without Zubac, the Clippers tried defending him with Mason Plumlee to start, then at halftime switched to forward Nicolas Batum, whose long arms and guile have successfully denied Jokic the ball and position he wants. But Jokic scored 40 points with 17 rebounds and 10 assists, and 15 of his points came in the fourth quarter and overtime.
The loss left the Clippers 33-30 and swept in all four games against Denver, which is 9-2 against the Clippers since these teams’ meeting in the 2020 Western Conference semifinals.
Before the game it was a reunion of sorts.
Former Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, traded to Charlotte for Plumlee before being bought out and signing with Denver as a free agent, strode through Ball Arena security three hours before tipoff.
Wearing a down jacket and trucker hat, Jackson — who spent his high school years in Colorado Springs, Colo. — started a conversation with nearly every staffer he passed, as was his custom with the Clippers.
Right behind him through the arena’s metal detector was Bones Hyland, who went from all-rookie last season with the Nuggets to dealt for second-round picks to the Clippers months later, a trade precipitated when the team and rookie didn’t see eye-to-eye on his role.