Clippers forward Danilo Gallinari drives toward the basket past Denver’s Juan Hernangomez during the first half of their game Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018 at Staples Center. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
LOS ANGELES — The Clippers were in good spirits before Saturday’s victory, when an energized Patrick Beverley went bounding through the hallway offering fist bumps to team and Staples Center personnel — even, accidentally, the Denver Nuggets’ Juancho Hernangomez.
Beverley and Co. were in an even better mood after defeating the Denver Nuggets 132-111 before 16,571 fans at Staples Center.
“It’s a feel-good win,” said guard Tyrone Wallace, who had eight points. “Everybody got to play, we shared the ball, everybody got touches, so it’s a feel good for the team and a big win for us.”
The 2 p.m. matinee was a rematch of the season opener between two teams who believed then that they’d be good, and who now are – along with the rest of the NBA – more certain of it now.
Denver rallied late to win that first one, in a “very ugly, very sloppy” affair, as Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone remembers it. When the teams met again Saturday, 38 victories (and just 22 losses) between them later, the Clippers cleaned up nicely.
They took control early to net a victory in the front half of a challenging back-to-back against two of the premier teams in the Western Conference. The Clippers (19-13) travel to face the defending champions in Golden State on Sunday evening after defeating Denver (21-10), which entered Saturday’s contest in first place.
“There’s a difference between believe it and believe it – they believe now,” Rivers said when reflecting on the Nuggets’ season so entering Saturday. “For us, it’s the same thing in a lot of ways. I don’t think we knew who we were going to be but, I think now we believe we can win games.”
Especially when the Clippers play like they played Saturday. They were lively early and, for a change, immediately after halftime too.
Their 35-27 advantage in the third quarter helped them build a 103-86 buffer entering the final period.
It didn’t hurt that Denver star Nikola Jokic was ejected at the 6:38 mark of the third quarter after directing a demonstrative outburst at an official. In his 21 minutes of work, the skilled Serbian big man had 19 points, on 7-for-15 shooting, to go with six rebounds and three assists.
“Our throw-out defense is phenomenal; getting [Jokic] thrown out of the game was part of our game plan,” Rivers joked.
The Clippers – who shot 57.6 percent from the floor, 10 of 20 from deep and 16 for 17 from the free-throw line – had 12 players score, including five in double figures. They outscored Denver 80-50 in the paint and finished with 27 second-chance points.
They were led again by forwards Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari, who both scored 21 points, who both were 3 for 5 from deep and 4 of 4 from the stripe and neither of whom played more than 26 minutes.
Beverley kept his energy up and contributed 12 points, the fourth consecutive game that he’s scored at least eight.
Montrezl Harrell had 20 points and 10 rebounds – his eighth double-double of the season and 11th of his career.
And Lou Williams dished a team-high seven assists off the bench, as the Clippers assisted on 28 of their 53 makes.
“I just thought our tempo set the tone,” Rivers said. “I thought our pace tonight, maybe as good as I’ve seen. We never stopped it, makes or miss. Just continued movement, spacing and play, and I thought we did it throughout the game.”
Marcin Gortat had a team-high 11 rebounds, and helped set the tone — to Rivers’ delight — with his physical play.
“That’s what I gotta, help the team to play physical, be a defensive force inside,” Gortat said. “I’m glad I helped the team to win the game.”
In addition to a host of rim-reverberating dunks in the third quarter, Harrell hit two free throws to make it 95-82 with 2:10 left in the quarter, a good sign for the Clippers, who now are 5-0 when they score at least 95 in the first three quarters.