Losers of three straight and seeking a spark, the Clippers hoped this night would represent a turnaround.
In one sense, that is exactly what took place.
After four quarters of their most ineffective, uncompetitive basketball of this season, the Clippers were spun around in circles so easily during a disastrous, 122-91 displays in Denver that as the midway point of the season rapidly approaches, their season appears as though it is now heading backward.
For weeks coach Tyronn Lue has preached the importance of patience as a roster rocked by injuries to the point it has played four games at full strength, and just 15 with both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George healthy, locks into the right combination of players and playing style.
Most worrisome Thursday was that against a Nuggets team tied for first in the Western Conference, nothing came close to working. In the standings, five games separate the Nuggets from the Clippers, but during a first half in which the Clippers allowed 19 unanswered points to Denver and trailed by as many as 38 – most damningly, even with Nikola Jokic, the two-time Most Valuable Player, scoring only three points, and Michael Porter Jr. contributing exactly zero – the gulf between them was vast.
Jokic finished with 12 points, nine assists and six rebounds. Jamal Murray scored 13 first-quarter points and finished with 18.
Just as he had 12 months earlier when the Clippers trailed Washington by as many as 35 points, Lue benched his starters out of halftime. It was true that the Clippers were due to tipoff in Minnesota less than 24 hours later, and that Paul George was already playing on a tender hamstring, making the rest valuable.
But the starters had also shown little to justify more playing time. In the first half, they combined to make nine of their 31 shots, including two of their 16 three-pointers. Overall, the Clippers made just three of their 28 outside shots of the paint in the first half.
Meanwhile Denver (25-13) cruised, making as many three-pointers – 11 – as the Clippers made field overall field goals in the first half. In the high altitude, it amounted to what could only be considered a low season as gauged not only by statistics but also the eye test. The Clippers (21-19) never led.
In the starters’ place, Lue started a lineup of Luke Kennard, Norman Powell, Terance Mann, Amir Coffey and Moses Brown, but unlike one year ago against the Wizards, there was no comeback brewing, just a loss by the season’s largest margin.
Leonard finished with six points, George scored three after making one of his nine shots.
The performance will only continue questions about the team’s direction with five weeks to go before the NBA’s trade deadline, and whether regression is in their future or their long-sought breakthrough.
Lue had leaned into the possibilities of a roster stocked with eight forwards between 6-foot-5 and 6-9 as early as the preseason, when the coach tried a lineup featuring five of them. As the regular season has progressed toward its midway point, however, lineups featuring three, smaller guards had become more common. When John Wall, Kennard and Powell played together, the Clippers had been outscored on average by 17.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass, which tracks advanced statistics.
And lineups constructed around Wall and fellow point guard Reggie Jackson plus a third guard – whether Powell, Kennard or Mann – have also been roundly outscored. Before the Clippers departed Los Angeles for Denver on Wednesday, Lue was quick to shoulder blame while also appearing to acknowledge fan criticism of his rotation choices that accompanied the 21-18 start.
“It’s not on those guys at all, it’s on me,” Lue said. “But I still need to see more. I know what I’m doing, but I need to see more from our whole team and then kind of assess it from there.”
Jackson is, at his core, an optimist. As such he said Wednesday he believes the consistent inconsistency “makes us a little more resilient and it tests us.” He, too, acknowledged the effect of unsettled rotations, but also placed blame on a team whose core has been together for three seasons.
“We get to find out who we are and shoot, coach gets to mistakenly, or he does purposely, figure out a lot of lineups so I think that gives us an advantage there,” Jackson said. “We know who we are and we kind of know what we do but it’s always on us and that’s one thing we also understand, is a lot of our losses are self-inflicted wounds.”
This latest one cut a mile deep.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.