The Denver Nuggets sitting atop the Western Conference near the midpoint of the 2018-19 season is a little surprising. The Los Angeles Clippers being fourth in the West might be even more unexpected.
Los Angeles (24-16) has successfully rebooted since trading previous franchise player Blake Griffin to Detroit last season and losing center DeAndre Jordan to free agency last summer. Despite the changes it has stayed in the thick of the playoff race.
Coming off a 128-109 win over Charlotte on Tuesday, the Clippers head to Denver to face the Nuggets (27-12) on Thursday night. It's the third meeting between the teams and the first in Denver. The Nuggets will be looking for payback after losing by 21 points in L.A. just before Christmas.
The Clippers will be a tough matchup. They have won three straight, are 7-3 in their last 10 and bring the NBA's fourth-ranked scoring offense to town (116.0 points per game).
Leading the way offensively is Tobias Harris, who was acquired in the Griffin trade. He is averaging 21.1 points per game. The team's No. 2 scorer is a familiar face to Denver fans -- Danilo Gallinari at 19.5 points per contest.
The Clippers' catalyst is sixth man Lou Williams, who averages 18.5 points and a team-high 4.9 assists off the bench. He led L.A. to the win over the Hornets with 14 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth quarter. He also had 10 assists for his third double-double of the season.
"That's just Lou being Lou," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said Tuesday night.
The Nuggets counter with a double-double machine in center Nikola Jokic. Jokic was signed to a max deal in the summer and has earned every penny of it this season. He leads Denver in scoring (19.2 points), rebounding (10.1) and assists (7.5). He has two triple-doubles in the last five games, including Tuesday in a 103-99 win in Miami.
Playing the second game of a back-to-back set, Jokic had 29 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists and hit the go-ahead floater with 2.4 seconds left.
The Nuggets beat the Heat without one of their better perimeter defenders. Guard Gary Harris, who recently returned from a hip injury, was out after leaving Monday's game at Houston with tightness in his left hamstring. His status for Thursday is not known.
The good news is guard Will Barton, who has missed the last 37 games following core muscle surgery, is getting closer to returning, coach Michael Malone said Tuesday. In the meantime, Denver has to grind through a stretch of five games in seven days.
"Hopefully Will is back within the next week, week and a half, whatever it may be," Malone said. "That also allows you not to overload guys. To get through the stretch that we got through was great and we won, but when you step back you wonder if guys were redlining, if we were forcing guys to play too many minutes just because we had so many bodies out."
--Field Level Media