As the clock neared 3 p.m., the Clippers focused on their phones.
One after another, players fired off text messages in a group chat, saying their goodbyes.
Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, experiencing the NBA’s trade deadline for the first time, couldn’t look away.
“Just wowed me the whole time,” he said. “It’s the NBA. That’s how it goes.”
For a rookie navigating the realities of the league, the last 48 hours proved instructive. In that time, the Clippers executed three trades involving 12 players and four draft picks. They made two of the trades and waived two players in the last 90 minutes leading up to Thursday’s deadline.
Six players on the roster for Tuesday’s comeback victory at Charlotte are no longer with the team. Three Clippers who took part in the team’s shootaround Thursday morning were gone less than four hours later.
Ping. Ping. Ping.
The notifications on players’ phones piled up.
“Emotional roller coaster,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “You understand at the end of the day it’s a business but, you know, that still doesn’t take the emotion out of it.”
“We had an amazing day,” coach Doc Rivers said.
For those in the organization saying goodbye to nearly a third of the roster, it was also an emotional day that turned into a long night.
Four hours after the deadline passed, and with only 10 active players, the Clippers couldn’t sustain their fight from the first quarter in a 116-92 loss to the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Errors expected from a mishmash of players not used to playing together led to 21 turnovers that the Pacers converted into 34 points.
Center Montrezl Harrell, who moved into the starting lineup after starter Marcin Gortat was waived, scored a team-high 19 points, with four assists and six turnovers. Indiana’s Bojan Bogdanovic thumped his head on the court in the first quarter after being fouled on a dunk but stayed in the game and finished with a game-high 29 points. The Clippers (30-26) made their first 11 shots but the Pacers (36-19) made 56% overall.
The Clippers had rallied for two victories on this trip after trailing by 20 points but didn’t have the reinforcements to mount a similar comeback.
They were lucky they even had 10 players. The club’s G League affiliate happened to be playing in Iowa and Angel Delgado, a center on a two-way contract, took an extra flight east to join the team in Indianapolis. As he dressed in the locker room before tipoff, Rivers quizzed the rebounding specialist about certain play calls. He scored three points in his NBA debut.
“I’m having a tryout,” Rivers said 90 minutes before tipoff, “if anyone wants to fill some jerseys.”
In the aftermath of a wild deadline, the Clippers firmly believe that performances like this will be few and far between.
Their first-round pick in the June draft will go to the Boston Celtics if the Clippers make the playoffs, but the potential of losing it has caused the team little consternation. One reason: They view sharpshooter Landry Shamet, acquired in the trade that sent Tobias Harris to the Philadelphia 76ers, as a de facto draft pick. Shamet was the 25th pick in last year’s draft.
The challenge of making the playoffs after losing three starters, including their team’s leading scorer, has perhaps only emboldened a Clippers team that all season has been most comfortable when self-identifying as an underdog.
“When you go and play with your friends on the streets you want to win,” said forward Danilo Gallinari, who scored 12 points in his first game after being sidelined since Jan. 18 because of back spasms. “Imagine us playing in the NBA. We want to win.”
Said Rivers: “I hear the talk of giving up on the season. Not this group. … This team is not one of those teams that flinches.”
The team’s new acquisitions also have a fighting streak, he said, praising the toughness of former 76ers Shamet and Wilson Chandler, former Laker Ivica Zubac and former Memphis Grizzlies JaMychal Green and Garrett Temple. That may well be the case, but it didn’t help against the Pacers.
The reconfigured roster will practice together for the first time Friday at Boston, and soon the newcomers will join a new group chat. They will quickly be informed that the new-look Clippers expect to finish what the original roster started.
“We have a bunch of fighters on this team still,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We’re going to try to fight and win every game. That will never change.”