‘We got to stick together.’ Clippers trying to figure it out amid losses and lineup changes

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks Sunday, Jan. 8, 2023, in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks during the first half against the Hawks. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

After shaking up the Clippers‘ lineup Sunday, and with one month until the NBA’s trade deadline, coach Tyronn Lue suggested more change is coming to the team’s overcrowded guard rotation.

“We have a plan in place, but until Luke [Kennard] just gets healthy, we won’t see it yet,” Lue said.

What has not gone to the team’s ambitious plan is a 21-21 Clippers record halfway through the season that left them seventh in Sunday’s Western Conference standings, 6 ½ games out of first place, with games against Dallas and Denver — which have each won eight of their last 10 games — still to come this week.

Riding a six-game losing streakthose in the locker room spoke of another plan late Sunday — how to endure a season that has produced the franchise’s longest losing streak since November 2017.

“We got to stick together,” said forward Nicolas Batum, the team’s eldest statesman 15 years into his career. “Watch film practice, see what happened, get better, improve. I mean it’s still like a lot of games left, but not a lot of games left, at the same time.”

Forty-one games in, Lue felt it was time to make a dramatic lineup move by benching point guard Reggie Jacksona starter since the 2021 postseason, against Atlanta and ultimately played Jackson only eight minutes.

Jackson is the quickest Clipper to strike up a conversation, a player who fist bumps arena security guards as warmly as he does his teammates. But Sunday night he quickly left the locker room inside Crypto.com Arena and politely declined an interview request.

Asked whether he was concerned the losing streak could “lose” some players in the locker room, Luc called the moves that have already happened and are still to come something that “just test your character and test who you are, as a person and as a basketball player,” Lue said. “So I’m pretty sure everyone in that locker room been through some worse things than this.”

He added that though Jackson was out of the rotation Sunday, “then tomorrow it could be somebody else. Just kind of experimenting with different things. When you lose five games in a row, you want to try some different things.”

“This is the spot where you see if you really enjoy the game and if we’re a team,” star Kawhi Leonard he said. “We got to dig out this hole. It’s fun, it’s a good challenge for us.”

Against the Hawks, Jackson played off the bench mostly within a three-guard lineup alongside Norman Powell and John Wall, but when that lineup was outscored by 13 points in eight minutes, Lue broke it up after halftime and continued playing only Powell and Wall. Lue has often allowed smaller lineups more chances, but that three-guard combination has now played 54 minutes together and been outscored by 38 points, with 24 assists against 20 turnovers in addition to defensive shortcomings. Opponents have made 48% of their shots, and 45% of their three-pointers, against lineups featuring that trio.

The minutes crunch will only continue when Kennard returns, after he watched in street clothes Sunday because of a sore ankle.

“It’s not easy some for some players for some games like that and we know that that’s why we got to stick together, got to keep talking to Reggie,” Batum said. “I mean how many times has Reggie saved us? I mean that’s why people love him. It’s why they chant his name about him because he’s a big player. He’s a great player. So sometimes, some night like this, yes it’s tough because we want to have Reggie on the court, we want to see Reggie perform but tonight coach made some choices.”

Those choices led Lue, Batum and Leonard to be generally encouraged by how much faster the Clippers played off of missed shots and within the halfcourt offense. The team allowed 110 points per 100 possessions, its lowest defensive rating since Dec. 21, and the new starting lineup’s defensive rating was even lower, at 97.2. Overall, the new starters outscored Atlanta by eight points.

Yet the mood was quickly dampened when their 11-point lead halfway through the fourth quarter was lost.

“There’s no joy for sure,” Batum said.

“I can’t really pinpoint one reason why” for the inconsistency, Mann said. “I think just picking and choosing when we’re playing hard. We need to be a team that plays hard for all four quarters and be physical for all four.”

Multiple players assessed the team’s internal chemistry as still “positive,” as Leonard said, with Mann adding that teammates were still encouraging one another. When Mann took, and made, his first shot Sunday, Jackson was the first teammate to stand from his sideline seat and celebrate.

“I mean, everybody’s down, they don’t want to lose a game, but you know, just in the beginning of preparing [Sunday], everybody was still pretty levelheaded,” Leonard said. “We’ve gotta keep digging.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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