Column: Clippers weren’t expecting these losses

Column: Clippers weren’t expecting these losses

The news caught them by surprise.

The Clippers, riding a seven-game winning streak that had pulled them even with the Lakers for the best record in the NBA, were about to depart for Atlanta to begin a six-game trip when they learned the passenger list for the flight would be different than they’d expected.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, their two leading scorers and the key reasons the Clippers had developed the effective rhythm and smooth flow that was missing most of last season, wouldn’t be traveling. They were held back in Los Angeles because of health and safety protocols related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it wasn’t clear when — or if — they’d play during the trip. Spark plug guard Patrick Beverley also wouldn’t travel, in his case because of a sore right knee.

It was a surprise — and yet, it wasn’t. With COVID-19 still raging, the NBA’s schedule has been scrambled almost daily because safety protocols have sometimes left teams without the minimum eight players available to play. The Clippers had been fortunate to get through nearly a quarter of the shortened schedule relatively unscathed. That luck ended as their trip began.

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“We didn’t really talk about it. At this point we understand that this is the new normal,” Lou Williams said in describing players’ reactions to learning that Leonard and George had to stay behind.

“This is a different dynamic than we’re used to. We were told right before we were taking off that those guys would probably join us later on the trip, or maybe not come on the trip. For us, everybody’s professional. You’ve got to still be prepared for the game.”

Just as the Clippers were hitting stride this season, they were hit by adversity. A 26-point second half and 38-point performance by Atlanta guard Trae Young overcame the Clippers’ attempts to replace the skill and finesse that was yanked out of their lineup with basic grit and scrappiness, and their win streak was over.

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“That’s just how this year is going to go,” Ivica Zubac said after the Clippers’ 108-99 loss to the Hawks at State Farm Arena. “A lot of teams were hit by this. A lot of teams are missing players. We were lucky to have everyone so far, but it is what it is, and you’ve got to adjust. It’s going to be that type of a season for everyone.”

It will be a season that will require adapting quickly, sometimes on a daily basis, to who’s available and who’s not. It will require patience, depth and resourcefulness to win, in addition to staying healthy. The Clippers (13-5) were merely eight for 26 (30.8%) from three-point range but they competed well during the first half, until the Hawks picked up the pace and Young began to shred their defense.

“I thought tonight was a great opportunity for everybody on our team to step up and play hard, try to fill those voids,” Williams said during a postgame webinar, “and we fell short.”

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, starting for only the second time this season, stepped in with 20 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and two steals. But he was scoreless in the third quarter, when the Hawks outscored the Clippers 33-22.

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Clippers coach Tyronn Lue praised Jackson for “trying to push the tempo and making plays for himself and other guys,” and said Serge Ibaka was “really good in the first half,” when Ibaka scored 13 of his 15 points. Poor shooting nights for Nicolas Batum (two for seven) and Williams (four for 14) contributed to the Clippers’ woes.

“We wanted guys to be aggressive creating plays and making plays for each other and I thought we did it some of the time,” Lue said. “They competed. They fought. They played hard. Trae Young, he got going in the second half.”

Jackson said his first thought after learning Leonard and George wouldn’t play in Atlanta was “next man up.” But in a league driven by superstars, there are few next men who can replace Leonard, who’s averaging 25.9 points per game, or George, who’s averaging 23.9. “It’s unfortunate but during these type of times … you have to be prepared for the worst,” Jackson said.

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Jackson said he had been in regular contact with the absent players, and they told him they’re doing everything possible to get back. “They’re still here with the team in spirit,” he said. “We’re like a family here. We miss them. Wish they were here with us. Hopefully we’ll get them back here soon.”

They can’t return soon enough for the Clippers. Their schedule is rugged, continuing with back-to-back games Thursday at Miami and Friday at Orlando. Adversity has hit, and now the Clippers must strike back.

“We can’t get out of character and do things that are outside the reach of who we are as basketball players,” Williams said. “We can’t go out there and try to wake up and be Kawhi and PG and Pat, what those guys give us on the defensive end, and on the offensive end. We can’t go out there and try to re-create that. We’ve got to be ourselves.”

And hope being themselves is good enough, at least until Leonard and George come back.

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