The Clippers thought they had an opponent to share their pain with Thursday as their unplanned experiment of navigating more than two weeks of the schedule with four injured starters began.
What the banged-up Utah Jazz reinforced by pulling away in the fourth quarter of a 126-107 victory at Staples Center is that the Clippers’ brand of misery is something rare.
“The worst thing you can do is freak out,” Clippers forward Sam Dekker said after Utah outscored his team 32-14 to close the game.
Severely thinned out by the absence of so many starters, the Clippers (8-12) wore down in the fourth quarter, giving up key offensive rebounds, three-pointers and uncontested dunks while playing their first game since All-Star forward Blake Griffin was lost for two months to a knee injury Monday night.
“We got wore out today,” said guard Austin Rivers, who scored a season-high 25 points with six assists but was shut down by trapping defenders in the late going. “We’ve got to figure it out. They started trapping me. You’ve got to figure out ways. … I’ve got to smarten up and let someone else dribble it up, run different sets … there’s a lot we can do.”
The Clippers were within a point of the Jazz early in the fourth when the anticipated toll of their absences struck in a sloppy stretch in which Utah outscored them 14-2.
Fraught by Clippers turnovers and missed shots, a game within reach became a one-sided affair and perhaps a dark look at what lies ahead.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers called the late defensive lapses “a big red flag … they’re fixable, but tough. You’re playing so many young guys … they’re learning. We’re switching. A lot of the communication, they messed it up. But they’re young … .”
Utah was also missing three players it planned to start often this season: guards Rodney Hood (left ankle) and Dante Exum (left shoulder surgery) and center Rudy Gobert (right tibia bruise).
But guards Alex Burks (28 points) and Donovan Mitchell (24 points) compensated with sharp-shooting and by helping to force the Clippers into 19 turnovers.
The imperfections will be plentiful as the Clippers wait for Griffin to return from his layoff because of a left knee injury suffered in a victory over the Lakers.
The discomfort is expected to be most great until mid-December as the Clippers remain on standby for injured point guard Milos Teodosic (plantar fascia injury in his left foot) and forward Danilo Gallinari (strained left glute).
“We don’t have a lot of true offensive players,” Doc Rivers said. “You have to trust more. You have to allow them to play, allow them to make mistakes and breathe through it.
“You still have your philosophy of how you want to play, but we’ve lost so many scorers and playmakers, we have to try and make short-term changes on the fly. … You would think [Lou Williams and Austin Rivers] are the two guys” to carry the offensive load, “but they may have to make plays by passing. Someone is going to show us something we don’t know, and then we use that later.
“There’s always a silver lining. I don’t know what the hell it is … . It’s life. You deal with it.”
The veteran coach is prepared to improvise through the depletion.
How will he form rotations?
“Mostly, it’s just gut,” Rivers said. “Like starting four guards … we’re going to do what we want to do, not just match up. We’ve got to try to create our own chaos versus the other team. Ball movement leads to the better play. They have to trust that.
“On each night, you just have to throw it out there and try to win that game.”
The plan had merit in the third quarter against the Jazz, as Griffin’s replacement, Montrezl Harrell, sneaked down for a go-ahead dunk and Rivers followed with a three-pointer. The sequence repeated, with another Harrell dunk preceding Williams’ three-pointer for a 79-72 lead.
A 10-2 Jazz run revealed the gravity of the Clippers’ situation — as the second unit battled through inconsistent offense, defensive lapses and increased reliance on center DeAndre Jordan.