LOS ANGELES — Down two points with 14.6 seconds remaining, Will Barton ultimately ended up with the basketball and free space to drive the left baseline. But the ball popped high into the air before he could get a shot off.
In the end, it was just another Nuggets turnover, coach Michael Malone said. One of 17 in the second half as Denver again faltered down the stretch in a key 109-104 loss at the Clippers that dropped the Nuggets to ninth in the Western Conference standings.
“That’s back-to-back nights where defenses have turned up the pressure, turned up the heat, and we have not handled it well,” Malone said. “ … (Opponents) are watching us. They’re just gonna ratchet up the pressure and watch us turn the ball over and self-implode.”
The loss in which the Nuggets surrendered multiple double-digit leads came one night after they escaped with a 105-102 win over Dallas in a game Denver led by as many as 23 points in the second half. Clunky offense was partially to blame, as Jamal Murray’s absence due to concussion protocol left Barton as the Nuggets’ starting point guard and added Mason Plumlee (16 points, 14 rebounds) back to that group to pair with Nikola Jokic (18 points, eight rebounds) inside. But after committing just four turnovers before halftime, the Nuggets again regressed to the team that entered Wednesday ranked 28th in the NBA in opponent points off turnovers (19.3).
Denver set the wrong tone while up nine at the beginning of the third quarter, giving the ball away four times in the first three minutes. That helped fuel a 16-2 Clippers run to surge ahead 68-66 on a Tyrone Wallace layup. Then after the Nuggets answered with an 11-1 spurt to regain a double-digit lead, Los Angeles closed the period on an 11-2 run.
“Things were going kind of easy for us,” Barton said. “We let our guard down a little bit, and they kind of blitzed us. And then once they did that, then we’re scrambling to pick the pieces back up …
“When we’re winning the game and we’ve got a comfortable lead, we’ve got to know teams are gonna try to make that last push to get back in the game. We’ve got to be ready.”
That yo-yo third quarter set up a highly contested final period, capped by a wild finish.
Barton scored nine of his 17 points in the period, twice giving Denver a two-point lead on a pull-up 3 and 19-foot jumper on back-to-back possessions with about six minutes remaining and then tying the score at 96 on a tough finish inside about two minutes later. After Montrezl Harrell air-balled a free throw and clanked the next, Denver started intentionally fouling him but could not capitalize on the other end. Then after a Wesley Johnson 3-pointer put the Clippers up seven with less than two minutes to play, Denver initiated a 6-1 spurt to earn a chance to tie or win in the final seconds.
The Nuggets also could not take advantage of Los Angeles’ own sloppy play, committing 20 turnovers for 32 points. Though Blake Griffin totaled 20 points and 12 rebounds, first-half surprise Lou Williams needed 18 field-goal attempts to reach 17 points and turned the ball over four times.
Jokic called Denver’s bevy of turnovers “stupid.” Malone called them “silly” and “frustrating.”
But Barton’s fumble in the closing seconds? That miscue stemmed from aggressively attacking the basket.
Still, Barton lost the ball before he could send it toward the rim.
“I didn’t deliver like I was supposed to,” Barton said. “I just gotta stay strong and learn from it, and I will. Not being able to come through for my team, that’ll haunt me for the night.”