“I’m not concerned,” coach Ty Lue responded following the Clippers’ Game 2 loss after being asked of his level of concern being down 2-0 heading into Dallas. Paul George echoed a similar response after the loss saying, “There’s no level of concern,” and that they just need to play their game. Reggie Jackson also addressed the media and mentioned that he’s “got a lot of faith in this team” and that he “know(s) guys have a lot of pride.” The Clippers have undergone tremendous development this year, and that plays directly into the situation they now face, down 3-2.
But given this team’s recent history, how could they all feel so at ease with the situation? Just last season, their championship run ended horribly and many members from that team still remain. Now, in an even more important season that has bigger implications on the future, nobody on the team is feeling it? Well, those past experiences are arguably what has shaped this calm and unfazed attitude that the team has operated with throughout the 2021 season. And everything — quotes, decision-making, actions, performances — that has followed that Game 2 loss has been embodiments of what the team has been all season long.
Patrick Beverley was moved to the bench in favor of Reggie Jackson to begin Game 3, and Nicolas Batum replaced Ivica Zubac in the starting unit during Game 4. These moves were probably the necessary ones to make in order to help reset the series, but relegating two long-time starters to the bench and significantly cutting their playing time was a risk for many reasons. Yet, Ty Lue knew how the team would respond, and it’s in large part because of how they’ve responded all along.
Back at the start of the season, Marcus Morris Sr., nursing a knee injury, made his pitch to Lue to keep Nic Batum in the starting lineup amidst Morris Sr.’s return to the lineup, recognizing that it was best for the team at that moment. Later on, in the season, the two would reverse roles — ironically against these same Dallas Mavericks — as the team hunted for different outcomes. Similarly, Ivica Zubac also found himself in a new role upon Serge Ibaka’s arrival to the team but made his way back into the starting lineup ahead of a March 2021 meeting with Dallas following Ibaka’s back injury. Now that he’s seen his role momentarily reduced, he understands the approach of it.
The sacrifices and readiness for each circumstance that the players have made this season have coincided with their enhanced leadership, which is extremely important for this team. Starting with the head of the operation, coach Ty Lue immediately brought tranquility to the sideline which has kept players even-keeled in-between the lines – with noticeably less bickering and immaturity. Rajon Rondo was brought in to bring the on-court tranquility and he’s delivered, and the team’s core — Kawhi, PG, Morris Sr., and Beverley — all took leaps in communication and cohesion.
Still, all of that development can lose its value at the drop of a dime, especially with the situation the Clippers are in now.
On Wednesday night, the final horn sounded and the Dallas Mavericks left STAPLES Center having cornered the Clippers into another uncomfortable position. “We know what we gotta do,” said Ivica Zubac after the third home loss of the series. “It’s win or go home.” That’s the harsh and unfortunate reality of where these Clippers currently stand, and while they have revamped their leadership and reworked their identity, the end result has to validate it. The disappointment of Game 5 puts all of that development into serious jeopardy, yet, this very moment calls upon exactly what the Clippers have been preparing for all season long. They’ll enter American Airlines Arena on Friday with a lot on the line, and for Ty Lue’s message to his team, “You got to win in 7 now.”