DENVER (AP) — Paul Millsap wasn’t about to let Nikola Jokic’s foul trouble hinder the Denver Nuggets.
Millsap helped the Nuggets breeze past the Los Angeles Clippers 123-96 with a vintage performance that had his coach marveling at his youthful and infectious energy Sunday.
Jokic had 22 points and 16 rebounds, and Millsap had 21 points and 16 boards, doing much of his damage after Jokic took a seat two minutes into the second half with his fourth foul.
Millsap said he knew he had to step up, “not just scoring inside, but leading the team.”
He said that was easier for him to accomplish thanks to a break earlier this month when he missed three games with a sore right ankle. Since his return, he said, he’s in better shape and better rhythm.
“I feel great,” Millsap said. “Having that break was definitely beneficial.”
His refreshed body and mind has, in turn, injected Denver’s deep bench with even more energy.
“Paul found the fountain of youth or something,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s playing like a young Paul Millsap. He’s flying around. We chart everything, Paul Millsap by himself, he contested 18 shots tonight. Eighteen shots, 21 points, 16 rebounds and just impacting the game. His energy is infectious for all the other guys.
“And Nikola obviously, we expect that from him every night. It’s a good win.”
One that helped the Nuggets pull within a game of the Western Conference-leading Golden State Warriors.
At 41-18, the Nuggets are also three games ahead of the third-place Oklahoma City Thunder, who visit Denver on Tuesday night.
Lou Williams scored 24 and Danilo Gallinari had 19 for the Clippers, who couldn’t capitalize on Denver’s uncharacteristic 22 turnovers and 12 missed free throws because they were ice cold themselves.
The Clippers made just 3 of 24 3-pointers.
That wasn’t all that went wrong for the Clippers.
“I didn’t think we played very well,” L.A. coach Doc Rivers said. “I would love to say it was shots missed, I thought they were the tougher team, the more physical team. They got to most of the loose balls, they beat us down the floor. I thought it started on the defensive end, and then in the third quarter I thought it was our offense let us down.”
It wasn’t just Millsap who hurt the Clippers when Jokic went out, Rivers insisted.
“I think they all hurt us for the most part. They just kept going downhill all game. Millsap was great,” Rivers said. “We had a couple of good efforts overall, but I just didn’t like how we played.”
BIG THREE: During Denver’s big third-quarter run, Mason Plumlee found himself unguarded at the top of the key and banked a 3-pointer, just his second of the season, triggering a timeout by the Clippers.
Gary Harris called it the play of the game and suggested opponents might want to put a hand up when Plumlee gets the ball deep.
“I didn’t hear him call ‘bank,’” joked Malone.
Millsap said he heard “Glass!”
At least he thinks he did.
“Um, yeah,” Millsap said. “I knew it was good when it left his hands.”
Clippers rookie guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came in averaging 10 points a game on 47 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent from long-range. But he scored just one point in 30 minutes, going 0 for 8 from the floor, 0 for 3 from the arc and 1 for 2 from the stripe.
“Just keep playing. No one’s going to feel sorry for you. I’ll hug him or whatever, but this is the NBA,” Rivers said. “You’re going to have bad games, you just have to be willing to go 0-for and not change your body language. I thought it did tonight, Shai started pressing. He’s young and he’ll learn from that. If you want to be great you have to be willing to go 0 for 20 and still keep doing other things.”
Clippers: Los Angeles missed all 12 of its 3-point attempts in the first half and was 0 for 14 by the time they finally made one — Williams’ 3 made at the 6:11 mark of the third quarter cut Denver’s lead to 80-64. ... The Clippers lost the season series 3-1.
Nuggets: Harris, who returned Friday after missing seven games with a right adductor strain, came off the bench and scored 14 points in 22 minutes for Denver. ... Harris’ best play, however, was his deflection of Williams’ pass into the paint that he subsequently spiked volleyball style downcourt for Monte Morris’ breakaway basket.
Clippers: Host Dallas Mavericks on Monday night.
Nuggets: Host Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night.