Walking toward State Farm Arena’s locker room Monday night, his team’s fifth consecutive victory secured, Clippers coach Doc Rivers put his arm around the shoulders of assistant general manager Mark Hughes.
The two kept going, laughing the whole way.
The Clippers, the NBA team no one saw coming, staged a second consecutive madcap comeback to outlast Atlanta and move into a three-way tie atop the Western Conference one month into the new season.
The Clippers rallied from 15 points down to win by using unconventional lineups and outscoring the Hawks by 15 in the fourth quarter to win 127-119, two days after rallying from 15 down in Brooklyn by using unconventional lineups and outscoring the Nets by 15 in the fourth quarter to win 127-119.
“I never think we’re out of a game,” said Montrezl Harrell, who scored a team-high 25 points off the bench to go with 11 rebounds, five steals and two blocks in nearly 32 minutes. “We definitely don’t want to put ourselves in the situation to be down like that and have to continue fighting to come back in games, but it definitely builds character and shows we’re going to keep competing until the end of the buzzer.”
Tobias Harris scored 24 points and added eight rebounds, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander broke out of a two-game lull with 16 points and Lou Williams had 16 points and a season-high 11 assists.
Playing without ill starter Danilo Gallinari, the Clippers (11-5) sleepwalked through the first 30 minutes and trailed 87-72 as Hawks rookie Trae Young threw lob after lob over the top of a poor pick-and-roll defense for alley-oops. Rivers called it a “coaching mistake” not to put Avery Bradley, returning after missing six games with an injured ankle, on Young.
“We cannot not put Avery on the best player ever again,” Rivers said. “We live and we learn.”
Rivers learned from Saturday by turning to an unlikely source for a comeback.
Shortly after guard Milos Teodosic played his first minutes in five games, center Boban Marjanovic checked in for the first time in four. While Teodosic tried his best to limit Young, who finished with 25 points and 17 assists on pick-and-rolls, by guarding him sometimes full-court, Marjanovic scored seven points in his first three minutes to kickstart a 10-0 Clippers run that gave them their first lead in 16 minutes.
Rivers swapped Marjanovic, who finished with 12 points in 10 minutes, for forward Mike Scott out of a timeout with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and within seconds Scott made the substitution look smart by making a three-pointer for a one-point Clippers lead. Seventy-four seconds later, he made another three from the same corner and the Clippers’ lead was seven with 2:54 to play.
Twelve of Scott’s season-high 18 points were scored in the second half.
“Shots were falling for us,” Scott said. “We got back to what we do. Scrappy, defend and make shots.”
Hours before tipoff, Rivers called himself confident in digging deep into his bench for answers but allowed he’d be more comfortable if he had eight go-to rotation players he could count on nightly. Twelve Clippers played and seven reserves combined to score 73 points. The closing lineup included more bench players (Harrell, Scott and Williams) than starters (Gilgeous-Alexander and Harris).
This winning streak began with two overtime games and has continued after two furious rallies. That’s a lot of stress — and success.