Months ago, as the NBA season began, the Clippers talked openly about their championship aspirations.
Halfway through the regular season, however, the team finds itself in a winter of discontent.
With wings Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum all unavailable, and with guard Luke Kennard lost for the final quarter because of calf soreness, the Clippers lost 128-115 to the Timberwolves on Friday night in Minnesota as their skid extended to five games, matching the team’s longest losing streak under coach Tyronn Lue.
In Denver and in Minneapolis this week, Lue left the losses steadfast in his belief that there remains enough time to build the good habits and consistency the Clippers have lacked while playing only four games this season at full strength. But the margin for error is getting slimmer by the day.
A team that dreamed of a deep postseason run will enter the season’s second half in a fight to avoid the play-in tournament. The Clippers finished the first half of the season 21-20 and went 11-13 against Western Conference opponents and 5-14 against opponents with winning records.
Three takeaways as the Clippers leave Minnesota and arrive at their schedule’s midway point:
Not competitive during skids
It isn’t only that the Clippers have lost five in a row. It’s how the streak has unfolded.
The Boston Celtics led by as many as 13 points, the Indiana Pacers by 14, the Miami Heat by 21, the Nuggets by 43 and the Timberwolves by 25.
The last time the Clippers led was during the opening moments of the fourth quarter against visiting Miami on Monday night — 107 minutes 45 seconds ago.
Asked whether he felt frustration given such a one-sided run lasting the last nine quarters, Lue told reporters in Minneapolis that he was not frustrated and believed the Clippers competed hard against the Timberwolves but were “overmatched at times.”
The player absences Friday and the immediacy of Thursday’s rout at Denver, with the game in garbage time halfway through the second quarter, did not give Luc a chance to implement lineup changes he suggested were coming after the third loss in the streak. Switching the reserves’ rotations, such as how often multiple guards play with one another, is a tool at his disposal to ignite change, but it wasn’t truly an option during the quick trip to Denver and Minnesota.
Downward trend on defence
The Clippers’ half-court defense is the NBA’s sixth best this season, but it hasn’t come close to that level of efficiency since a five-game trip began Dec. 23. In the seven games since then entering Friday, the Clippers ranked 29th out of 30 teams by giving up 123 points per 100 possessions — 11.5 points higher than their season average.
The story has been the same with transition defense, as the Clippers rank sixth overall but second to last since Dec. 23. It was why the Clippers left Denver late Thursday still looking for a stronger “defensive mindset,” in Lue’s words, to start games.
Despite missing two of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders and being in foul trouble only two minutes into Friday’s first quarter, the Clippers showed some resolve. Timberwolves star Anthony Edwards was held to six field-goal attempts and two assists in the first half. John Wall pinned Taurean Prince in the corner with a closeout, forcing a turnover. Kennard blocked a three-pointer, and Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington intercepted passes, part of Minnesota’s 11 first-half turnovers.
But the Clippers had nothing to counter the size of 7-footers Rudy Gobertwho helped the Timberwolves score 68 points before halftime on 65% shooting and finished with seven offensive rebounds and 25 points.
Lue made point-of-attack defense a preseason priority given what seemed to be the roster’s advantage of having a stockpile of long-armed wings with strong defensive credentials. Yet that has been a weakness during the last two weeks while the Clippers have lost six of their last eight games.
Minnesota scored 62 points in the paint, six fewer than the Clippers’ season high allowed, because “guys were driving by us,” Lue told reporters in Minneapolis, “and it allowed Rudy to get offensive rebounds and dunks because we couldn’t control the ball and keep the ball in front of us.”
Kawhi Leonard still hasn’t gone back-to-back
The Clippers’ season-worst, 122-91 losses Thursday night in Denver set the stage: Would Leonard play on consecutive nights for the first time this season?
That it was even a question stemmed from Lue’s decision to bench his starters at halftime Thursday with the Clippers trailing by 34 points, in part to preserve their rest ahead of the next day’s game in Minnesota. Leonard didn’t agree with the call, saying Thursday night that it was a time “when we need to be in there and dig ourselves out of those holes and learn what we’re doing instead of flipping the page and going to the next game ,” he said.
Leonard’s season-low 18 minutes and George’s season-low 13 in Denver left open the possibility of both playing the next day in Minneapolis, as the team listed them as questionable. But both were held out, with George sidelined to protect a hamstring he tweaked Monday.
Lue and Leonard said Thursday that they hope at some point this season Leonard will be cleared to play both ends of back-to-back games, but that figures to be a carefully scripted moment the team can plan for days in advance or longer. The unexpected blowout and benching Thursday made it a more sudden possibility, but it likely was too short of notice for a team that is especially cautious with health. Wall also has yet to play both nights of a back-to-back.
Playing on consecutive nights is important to Leonard, as it would set a benchmark in his durability in his return this season after he missed last season because of an anterior cruciate ligament tear in his right knee.
“Trying to establish games with me hitting those high 30-minute marks,” said Leonard, who had averaged 36.9 minutes in the six games preceding the Denver rout. “Just going to keep building and see where it goes.”
And where the Clippers’ season goes from here is a question that ranks among the most fascinating in the NBA.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.