After going behind by 20 points in the first half, the LA Clippers would stage an epic comeback but ultimately fall short against the San Antonio Spurs, 116-113. Kawhi Leonard, Nicolas Batum, and Patrick Beverley all put forward stellar performances, but they didn’t get enough scoring support with Paul George and Marcus Morris sidelined to overcome the Spurs’ three-point downpour and scoring runs against the Clippers’ second units.
Clippers vs Spurs Game Summary
It was yet another lackluster start for the Clippers, who came out a bit lazily and immediately fell down 9-0 to a youthful Spurs lineup. After the game, Patrick Beverley would note that the team needs to play harder while Kawhi Leonard would cite a lack of urgency coming out of the gate–issues that have been frequent enough in the team’s first eight games that simply acknowledging them isn’t very meaningful anymore.
As the starters settled into the quarter, things started to look a little better. Nicolas Batum had 8 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists in the opening period and Lou Williams had a quick 7 points to boost a sputtering Clipper attack. They even took a narrow lead at 27-26. But on a night where the absence of two Clipper starters forced Ty Lue to play a weak and diminutive second unit, the team simply needed more from their starters than simply playing even against one of the weaker teams in the Western Conference.
Like clockwork, Patty Mills came into the game and began absolutely torching the Clippers. He went 4-5 from three in the closing minutes opening frame and was the driving force to flip the score from 27-26 to 27-36 heading into the break. So far this season, the Clippers have compensated for the absence of Marcus Morris by moving Nicolas Batum to the starting lineup, and then compensated for Batum’s absence from the second unit by staggering Paul George and Kawhi Leonard’s minutes to have George play power forward on the second unit.
With George and Morris absent, Ty Lue turned to sophomore guard Terance Mann at power forward in lineup with Reggie Jackson, Lou Williams, Luke Kennard, and Ivica Zubac. Jackson, Williams, and Kennard are all sub-par defenders, and Mann is both not an impactful enough defender to make the lineup serviceable and a poor enough offensive player to hurt the lineup’s ability to score. The Clippers lost the first half by 19 points. They lost Terance Mann’s 8:38 on the floor by 20.
That’s not to say that Mann was some kind of isolated issue, the only problem holding this team back. Playing the Spurs even in the other 16 minutes is a disappointing performance for the Clippers’ starters, and the second unit’s collapse was really a case of Mann not being good enough to fix a deeply flawed lineup, not him personally causing issues. As is often the case, team three-point variance had a big impact on small-sample +/-, even though that isn’t necessarily any individual player’s fault–that is to say, it doesn’t help that -20 number that the Spurs made 5 of their 8 three-point attempts with Mann on the floor compared to 1 of 7 for the Clippers.
In the second half, things were different for the Clippers’ starters. By the 6:57 mark of the third, the 19-point halftime deficit had been cut all the way to 6, with Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley doing much of the heavy lifting. Leonard had 11 points in the third quarter to Beverley’s 10 as the Clippers won the period 40 to 22 and came roaring back to tie the game entering the final frame.
But the success in the second unit’s third quarter stretch–with veteran forward Patrick Patterson in place of Mann–turned out to be fool’s gold. As I said above, Jackson, Williams, and Kennard are all poor defenders. Patterson’s inclusion added a fourth to the lineup, and the Spurs had no trouble scoring on every possession to start the fourth quarter. Seriously, the Clippers didn’t get a fourth quarter stop until a Jakob Poeltl turnover at the 9:13 mark. By that point, the deficit was back to double digits, 97-87.
Climbing a 10+-point hill again was always going to be daunting, but thing were about to get even worse. Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley returns to the game with the scoreline at 102-92, the Clippers’ work cut out for them in the final 8 minutes. Then, again, like clockwork, our old friend Patty Mills emerged, hitting three backbreaking threes that made up San Antonio’s only scoring in the middle stretch of the fourth and keeping the Clippers at bay. By the time Mills’ work was done, the Clippers were down 15 with 5 minutes left instead of 10 with 8.
Still, far be it from Patrick Beverley to ever give up. In the midst of one of his best performances as a Clipper–20 points on 10 shots, 6-9 from deep, 8 assists, 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks–Bev made both possession-saving hustle plays and huge shots down the stretch as the Clippers clawed their way back into the game. A 113-99 deficit with 4:30 to play turned into a 113-116 final score as the Clippers surged to a 14-3 closing run that fell just short of stealing a win at the last moment. Down 2 in the waning seconds, Lou Williams and Luke Kennard each missed threes, with Kennard finding the bottom of the net from deep moments later only to have the shot waved off due to a loose ball foul from Patrick Beverley, whose effort had kept the ball alive for LAC to get a third attempt. Gifted another life by a Patty Mills missed free throw, Kawhi Leonard got an attempt off at the horn to force overtime but missed the mark.
For the Clippers, there were clearly stretches of the game, particularly in the first half, where they just didn’t get enough from their main guys. The starters came out without urgency, Serge Ibaka was nonexistent on a night when LAC needed firepower, and Kawhi Leonard had just 2 points in the fourth quarter. But as has been the case several times this season, things truly spiraled when Ty Lue went to his bench. At times, the issues on the second unit can be glaring, particularly on the nights when Reggie Jackson has simply been unplayable. But to be honest, Reggie has only had a couple of stinkers this year, and his individual play was fine tonight and has been (at least) fine most of the time.
The real problem with the Clippers’ second unit is that they are so, so bad defensively as a collective unit that it only takes a couple of miscues offensively–and not necessarily egregious ones, even just a missed jumper or intercepted pass–for the other team to spark a run, because LAC’s lineup simply cannot defend. Things go more smoothly when Paul George is available. And the problems will presumably be mitigated even more when Marcus Morris returns to the lineup and the Clippers add both another capable defender and a forward with size to their rotation. But the Reggie – Lou – Luke trio just do not fit well together, and that’s a problem for this team–maybe a problem that can be overcome when they’re fully healthy and the rotation is more staggered, but a problem nonetheless.
Diagnosing where the Clippers lost this game is easy, but figuring out what they should have done about it is less so. Playing Patterson at PF is, clearly, not the answer to any defensive problems. Mfiondu Kabengele and Daniel Oturu don’t even appear to be good enough to be considered for rotation minutes, even when the Clippers are shorthanded. Terance Mann has some utility but is unreliable. I actually think the Clippers lost this game in November, when they made a series of end-of-roster moves that were critiqued by myself and Robert Flom at the time as damaging their depth, a worry that was realized tonight as Lue struggled to find playable combinations of players. With four roster spots taken up by the aforementioned players who can’t be counted on in emergencies, and a fifth held open because the team paid Patterson too much and couldn’t afford to fill their final roster spot, you have to wonder how tonight’s second unit minutes would have gone if LAC had a reliable defensive forward on their second unit like Solomon Hill or (current free agent!!) Rondae Hollis-Jefferson.
- Kawhi’s Consistency: Kawhi went deep into his bag in the third quarter, forcing the issue offensively with tremendous success and getting whatever he wanted while displaying a high degree of skill. Kawhi is obviously the Clippers’ clear #1 option offensively with George sidelined, and a passive start from him hurt the team. He finished with a tremendous, efficient 30-point, 10-assist, 0-turnover performance, but started as slowly as he began. I don’t mind the missed shot at the buzzer, but he simply needs to do better than 2 points on 1-3 shooting in the fourth quarter of a close game.
- Twenty: All eight of the Clippers’ games have now featured a 20-point lead, 5 in the Clippers’ favor and 3 not. This NBA season has been historically volatile in its early weeks, with some staggering scorelines, and the Clippers have been no different. In fact, they are a perfect example of it. Across the league, no team has pulled off a comeback from 20+ so far this year (though LAC very nearly became the first tonight). It’s pretty common for big first-half leads to get erased in the night-to-night slog of the regular season, as we’ve seen in the Clippers’ last three games. Eventually, some teams will pull off some big comebacks.
- Zu: Catch the basketball, dude.
- Down Under: We all know that Aussie guard Patty Mills can explode from beyond the three-point arc, but it’s worth noting just how much of an outlier tonight was: this was his second-highest scoring night in 7 years and the only time in his career that he’s made eight threes in a game. Sometimes you just gotta take your lumps, and Patty was unstoppable tonight.
- Back-to-back: This is the Clippers’ second back-to-back of the season, after they won two blowouts last week against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trail Blazers. Against the Wolves, Kawhi Leonard was spared the scrutiny of his typical load management on back-to-backs while recovering from a mouth laceration, while Paul George played both games. Tonight, George was a late scratch with ankle soreness. If I had to guess, I’d guess that George plays tomorrow against the Golden State Warriors while Leonard sits.
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