Despite playing a bad Hawks team at home, the Clippers could not get out of their own way, falling 112-108 after blowing a late fourth-quarter lead.
The Clippers’ new starting lineup with both Terance and Nico came out of the gates extremely strong, playing with a ton of energy and pace. Kawhi was the primry initiator of the offense, and made a particular emphasis to attack and get to the paint. Some cold shooting prevented the Clippers from taking a big lead, but they still had a small advantage when the bench started trickling in. First came Norm for Nico. Fine. The Clippers continud to hold on. Then Wall for Mann, a little less fine. Finally came Reggie and Moses for Morris and Zu, and the CLipprs fell apart on both ends. A Hawks run cut their lead to one point after the first.
Incredibly, Ty Lue started the second quarter with a Wall-Reggie-Norm-Mann-Moses unit. Predictably, this lineup was absolutely atrocious on both ends (though they did miss some easy-ish looks), and a 13-0 Hawks run had them leading by 10 after just four minutes, with a Zu for Moses swap a couple minutes in not helping much. Keep in mind this was a Hawks unit with Frank Kaminsky at center and fringe NBA player Aaron Holiday on the court. Kawhi came back for Reggie, which helped a lot at both ends, but the Hawks were rolling now, and the teams traded blows. The starters played ok, but the spark from the first quarter was gone, and the Hawks led by 17 at one point. The Clippers went on a small run to get the lead down to 10, but then disaster struck as Collins was left open for a lob and then Hunter got a steal that immediately led to another dunk, putting the Clips down by 14 at half.
The Clippers’ starting unit again began well, playing with the same intensity on defense as they did to start the game. The offense wasn’t quite as sharp, but the defense was good enough that the Clippers slowly and steadily chipped away at the lead. The offensive rebounding in the middle part ot he quarter was huge, as it resulted in two Morris threes that got the Hawks’ lead down to seven. At that point, the Clippers’ defense really locked in against the Trae-less Hawks, and finally got the lead down to 1 with 3:12 left. Norm and Wall came in, but the defense remained strong, and the Clippers soon grabbed a lead. Trae kept the Hawks attached, but the Clippers held onto a two-point lead going to the final frame. The only two bench subs the entire period for the Clips were Wall and Norm.
Zubac remained out there alongside Mann (who was out briefly for a few minutes in the third), while Nico checked in for Kawhi. This unit remained effective on defense, and while the offense was rough, transition and offensive boards kept them in. At the 9:13 mark, with the Clippers up 7, Moses checked in for Zu, a move I was dreading. Miraculously, between Hawks incompetence and two Brown dunks off nice feeds from Wall, the Clippers held even in the Brown minutes, and were up 7 at the 5:50 mark when Zu came back. Shortly thereafter, Morris and Nico came back for Wall and Mann, and that’s where the wheels fell off. The Clippers’ offense stagnated as the played not to lose instead of to win, and Trae Young got going in the pick and roll. In two minutes, the Clippers’ lead was gone – and Mann remained on the bench. The teams went back and forth for a few minutes trading buckets, yet in the end, it was Trae who came out on top, as he nailed two floaters in the final minute, and a Kawhi three followed by a Morris three (after a Mann offensive board – he’d finally checked back in very late) misfired. Trae made his free throws, the Clippers were out of timeouts, and the Hawks pulled out the road win.
Inexcusable Second Quarter: In case my commentary above isn’t enough, I need to return to that Reggie-Wall-Norm-Mann-Moses lineup, an incredible unit that has below average defenders at four positions, is absolutely tiny on the glass, and features severely duplicative talents on offense. Ty Lue said after the game that the three-guard units are “done”, and he in fact did not play Reggie in the second half, but the damage was done in this game, as that unit, which was a -13, cost the Clippers the game. In a tightly bunched Western Conference, each game matters in the standings, and that’s not even counting the morale boost a win would have brought tonight to end the five-game slide. It was an unacceptable lineup from Ty Lue – play Robert Covington, play Amir Coffey even (though that wouldn’t help much), or stagger one of the three forwards that started the game. My jaw was on the floor when that unit ran out, and I still kind of can’t believe it played real minutes.
Dominant Zu: After a quiet to bad couple of weeks from Zu, tonight was a return to form, as he dominated the undersized (Onyeka Okongwu and John Collins) or bad (Kaminsky) big men the Hawks put out there. He had 17 points on 6-9 shooting, 18 rebounds, and three assists in 37 minutes, and the Clippers were +8 with him on the floor. His activity on defense and on the offensive glass (eight offensive boards) was fantastic, and the Clippers dearly missed him when he was out of the game.
More Terance: At this point, if it wasn’t obvious enough already, Terance Mann needs to be a key fixture in the Clippers’ rotation. Not just playing 15 minutes, or 20 minutes, but at least 25 minutes, if not 30, just about every game. His point of attack defense, rebounding, energy, and ability to get downhill are all critical for a Clippers’ team that is lacking in each of those areas, and he’s a great fit in both smaller and bigger lineups. 35 minutes is a ton, but he should have played even more, as Norm played over him down the stretch of the 4th, and the Clippers really could have used him out there. It’s been a great couple of weeks from Terance even as the Clips have crumbled around him.
Standings Watch: The Clippers, now sitting at .500 with a 21-21 record, are somehow still 7th in the West because the Suns, Jazz, and Blazers also keep losing. However, they’re now three losses back of 5th, and five losses back of 3rd – and tied for the same number of losses as the 11th seed Lakers. The bleeding needs to stop very, very soon, or they will be out of the play-in. There’s tons of games left, of course, but a chance at homecourt in any round of the playoffs if fading quickly, and it’s nearly impossible to make a deep playoff run from the bottom half of the postseason bracket.