LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers had the Denver Nuggets right where they wanted, Austin Rivers believed.
“(Up) six or seven with five minutes left, I thought we had it,” Rivers said.
Without three of their starters, the undermanned Clippers couldn’t keep pace with the Nuggets.
Nikola Jokic scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, and Danilo Gallinari and Will Barton contributed 23 points apiece, leading the Nuggets to a 106-102 victory over the Clippers.
Gallinari also had 11 boards as Denver (13-18) ended a two-game skid. Barton collected eight rebounds.
“I thought we were very good for three quarters,” said Gallinari, who scored 15 points in the first half. “The third quarter was not very good for us. They were able to be more aggressive and get back the lead of 17 points that we had.”
Jamal Crawford scored 24 points and Rivers added 19 for the Clippers (22-11), who played without injured starters Chris Paul (strained left hamstring), J.J. Redick (sore left hamstring) and Blake Griffin (right knee surgery). Clippers center DeAndre Jordan finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and three steals.
The loss was the third straight for the Clippers. But that didn’t dampen the outlook of Rivers.
“We’ll be fine,” the coach’s son said. “We’ll still be one of the top four seeds in the (Western Conference) playoffs. We’ll still be one of the best teams in the West. We’ll still go to the playoffs.
“But we’ve got to look at all of these little mistakes we’re making and just correct them. We’re too good of a team to start worrying about losing games. We’re not going to continue to lose.”
The Clippers made a game of it in the final quarter. The Clippers grabbed their biggest lead, 91-84, after a bucket inside by Brandon Bass with 7:48 remaining. But Denver slowly clawed its way back, going up 98-95 after a 3-point bucket by Jokic with 2:36 remaining. It never trailed again.
After Barton converted for a five-point lead, Crawford cut it back to three on a driving layup at 1:14. A dunk by Jordan sliced the margin to one, but Barton answered with a turnaround jumper with 35 seconds left.
Marreese Speights missed a 3-pointer with 27.6 seconds left that would have tied the score before Gallinari sealed the decision with four free throws in the final 16.4 seconds.
“It was really one quarter that killed us,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, referring to the second. “(Denver) scored 40 points. I thought we lost our energy. Why? I don’t know, but we did.”
A 10-0 spark to open the third allowed the Clippers to slice the Nuggets’ 17-point halftime margin to 63-56 after a bucket by Wesley Johnson less than two minutes into the quarter. However, Denver used several runs of its own to push the deficit back to double digits.
Los Angeles, though, closed the third with a 13-3 surge, capped by a 3-pointer by Crawford, to pull within 79-77. The Clippers outscored the Nuggets 31-16 in the third.
The Nuggets cruised to a 63-46 advantage at the break. Gallinari, Jokic and Barton combined (43 points) to almost outscore the Clippers.
Denver benefitted from a strong second quarter, outscoring Los Angeles 40-23. The Nuggets converted 82.4 percent of their shots compared to 38.1 percent in the quarter. Barton delivered 14 points in the period.
The Nuggets finished the half shooting 51.1 percent to 41.5 percent for the Clippers. Overall, the Clippers outshot the Nuggets 46.4 percent to 43.9 percent.
“I take a lot of pride in closing games out,” said Barton, who connected on 8 of 14 shots, including 3 of 6 from behind the arc. “I want to be our closer, fourth quarter when the game is on the line. I will do anything it takes to get a win, whether it is scoring myself or making a play for someone else.”
NOTES: Clippers coach Doc Rivers wasn’t sure when or if PG Chris Paul (left hamstring strain) and SG J.J. Redick (sore left hamstring) would return when the team opens a three-game trip beginning Wednesday at New Orleans. “You just don’t know with hamstrings,” Rivers said. “The one thing you do know I think we’ve all learned over the years is you have to be more cautious than if it was a sprained ankle. With hamstrings, you can’t take a chance.” … Nuggets F Wilson Chandler, who came off the bench in all but six of the previous 27 games, is one of the most productive reserves in the NBA. He averaged a team-high 16.9 points per game heading into the contest. Chandler managed just two points on 1-of-4 shooting against the Clippers. … The Nuggets host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.