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NBA Preview: Los Angeles Clippers (3-6) at Denver Nuggets (8-2)

The Los Angeles Clippers traded for James Harden hoping he would be the missing piece to a championship, but so far they’ve stumbled with him in the mix.

Los Angeles has lost five straight games, four of those with Harden in the lineup, and now faces a difficult task in its second game of the NBA’s in-season tournament. The Clippers travel to Denver on Tuesday night to take on the reigning champion Nuggets, who are also playing their second game of the tournament.

Los Angeles lost its first game of the in-season tournament, 144-126 at Dallas, while Denver beat the Mavericks 125-114 in their opener of West Group B play. A win on Tuesday will put the Nuggets in good position to reach the knockout round, and it will likely keep the Clippers out of it.

More important for Los Angeles is getting things on track with Harden in the lineup. The 2018 MVP is averaging just 13.5 points in his four games with the team and had only 11 in a 105-101 loss to Memphis on Sunday night.

Clippers coach Ty Lue has encouraged Harden to play his style instead of being passive.

A breakout game on Tuesday would be good timing. Denver is coming off a loss at resurgent Houston on Sunday night in a game that showed how much the absence of Jamal Murray (right hamstring strain) is affecting the Nuggets’ rotations.

Reggie Jackson has moved into the starting lineup and has played well, and rookie Collin Gillespie has served as the backup point guard.

The Nuggets likely won’t have Murray back before the end of November, so they are relying more on their reserves, which has been a struggle at times.

It didn’t work out well against the Rockets; the bench was outscored 31-8 by Houston’s reserves and finished a collective minus-40.

That hasn’t deterred coach Michael Malone — who reportedly agreed to a contract extension Monday — from using his young players to fill the gaps.

It will also take the burden off Nikola Jokic, who is playing at an MVP level early in the season. Sunday night, he had 36 points, 21 rebounds and 11 assists for his fourth triple-double of the season.

He leads the team in scoring (29.8 points per game), rebounding (13.7 boards per game) and assists (8.3 per game).

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