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Clippers, Nuggets hope to escape so-so seasons

The Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers were expected to challenge for supremacy in the Western Conference this season, but more than one-third of the way through the campaign, they are searching for stability.

Injuries and health and safety protocols have affected both teams and instead of sitting near the top of the conference, they are mired in mediocrity. Both will look to break out of it when they meet in Los Angeles on Sunday night.

The extent of the Clippers’ latest injury came with Saturday’s announcement that star Paul George will miss at least three weeks with a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. The injury first surfaced after a 102-90 victory at Portland, and it was originally diagnosed as a contusion.

Instead, George, who has averaged 24.7 points with 7.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists this season, adds to a list of absences that includes Kawhi Leonard, who hasn’t played all season while recovering from a surgically repaired ACL.

Also gone are Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson, who are in the league’s health and safety protocols, and Isaiah Hartenstein (ankle) and Luke Kennard (shoulder) out with injuries.

Despite missing all of those players except for George, Los Angeles snapped a three-game losing streak on Wednesday night. The 105-89 win over Sacramento served as a breakout game for Serge Ibaka, who had been buried on the depth chart with the play of Hartenstein and Ivica Zubac. Ibaka had 17 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.

The game ended a frustrating stretch for Ibaka.

“I’m going to be honest with you, as a human being it can be frustrating,” Ibaka said after Wednesday’s win. “As a coach, (Tyronn Lue) tries to do his best he can to keep the team together, to keep the team playing the best basketball you can and as a player, like, hard worker, someone who loves basketball like me, I want to play, too.

“At the same time, it can be really frustrating … but that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop being (a) professional. … At the end of the day I’m still blessed, man. If I’m not playing, even when I went to play in the G-League, my checks still come in.”

Chances are Ibaka will get some time guarding Nikola Jokic, who has been playing well despite his team’s struggles. Jokic had 29 points and a season-high 21 rebounds in a loss to Charlotte and has four triple-doubles in December.

The loss to the Hornets was Denver’s second straight and a tough one to take. The Nuggets led by 19 in the third quarter and 17 at the start of the fourth but were outscored 38-13 in the final 12 minutes.

Denver is just 5-6 in the month and is feeling the absence of several players. Jamal Murray has not played yet, Michael Porter Jr. had back surgery and will miss the rest of the year and several players have been in and out of the lineup recently.

Aaron Gordon missed Thursday’s game, and rookie Bones Hyland has been battling ankle issues.

Hyland gutted out 14 minutes after rolling his right ankle on Wednesday night in Oklahoma City but had just three points.

“It’s been unfortunate because that ankle injury has been reoccurring, kind of nagging him throughout,” coach Michael Malone said Thursday before tipoff. “He’s proven to be a guy off the bench that is a scoring spark. A guy that can get his own shot.

“He’s too valuable for us to miss games.”

He should play Sunday night, but Gordon’s status hasn’t been announced.

-Field Level Media