Instead of the promising start they’d imagined, the Clippers were left to rehash a bad ending.
Coach Doc Rivers leaned against a padded wall inside the team’s practice facility Thursday and outlined his disappointment not only with the late-game mistakes that contributed to the Clippers’ season-opening loss to Denver the previous night but the fact the game remained in doubt in the final minutes at all.
After taking a 92-84 lead in the fourth quarter Wednesday, the Clippers produced one field goal and four turnovers during their final eight possessions en route to being outscored 23-6 in the game’s final 5 minutes and 14 seconds.
“I think if we had trusted our spacing and the way we should play we wouldn't have had a late game,” Rivers said. “You’ve got to fix that first before you can get to the second part. That was us. I mean, give them credit, they won the game and they did something, but that was more us. …
“I thought our passing was poor. I thought we missed a lot of open guys. It's that first game — a lot of guys come in with their own individual stuff and you can actually feel that last night. I thought we did not play as a group last night. We played as a bunch of guys that were trying to have a day.”
The ending masked problems that troubled the Clippers well before the final five minutes. They shot 40% from the field and 28% from three-point range and weren’t aggressive, shooting 18 fewer free throws than Denver.
It added up to a wasted opportunity against an opponent expected to be in the Western Conference’s middle tier that came on a night the Clippers felt good about many other areas.
Despite allowing several transition opportunities in the first half, their defense clamped down on Denver’s free-flowing offense enough to limit the Nuggets to 38% shooting. The Clippers gave up the most corner three-pointers in the league last season, but Denver got just three off and made only one.
“A team that's been together like Denver, they kept running their stuff,” Rivers said. “A team like us, we kept abandoning our stuff. You could see it over and over.”
Rivers isn’t abandoning the patience he’d preached just days before but a key lineup change could come soon.
Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came off the bench to score 11 points with four assists, two rebounds and three turnovers. Of the 11 Clippers who played against the Nuggets, he was one of three to finish with a non-negative plus-minus, joining Danilo Gallinari (plus-nine) and Boban Marjanovic (plus-seven). Most notably, he was part of the lineup, along with fellow guard Lou Williams, that helped build the late eight-point lead.
He and Williams were substituted out in favor of starting guards Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley with 3:38 to play and the Clippers leading by four. Gilgeous-Alexander was taken out because he’d played 28 minutes and Rivers wanted better defenders on the floor after Denver had scored on four consecutive possessions — including three jumpers by Nuggets guards — that preceded the substitutions.
Rivers acknowledged that Gilgeous-Alexander has shown enough already to become part of the Clippers’ crunch-time lineup, which would likely displace one of the team’s veteran guards.
“I definitely think he can be a closer because he has size, number one,” Rivers said. “Defensively on the ball he's really good, off the ball he needs a lot of work. But offensively, Shai's ready to play any time. He deserved it.”
Knowing there was little continuity on the Clippers’ roster, Rivers spent large chunks of the preseason drilling end-of-game scenarios. That emphasis will only grow after seeing Wednesday’s late eight-point lead slip away.
“When you have a team that you've been together two to three years they almost go into end-of-game mode when end-of-game starts,” he said. “When you have a team like this, they don't know what to go into so you have to work on it.”
Yes, Marjanovic heard those “MVP” chants ringing around Staples Center on Wednesday.
The center had 18 points and eight rebounds in less than 18 minutes of playing time against the Nuggets and his series of fourth-quarter dunks — in which he hung on the rim while still standing on the hardwood — sent the crowd of 19,068 into a frenzy.
“It was amazing, it felt like when I dunk and-one, I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” he said. “Everybody started yelling and everybody started cheering and I hear that, it was so emotional at that time and good to have fans behind us.”
He has his coach behind him too. Marjanovic’s 18 minutes matched his high since being traded to the Clippers. Rivers has consistently said that Marjanovic’s defense against more nimble forwards will dictate his playing time, and felt the big man’s defense suffered late Wednesday.
Asked how comfortable he is chasing smaller players around the perimeter, Marjanovic flipped the question around.
“I don't know how they can be comfortable and defend me in the paint, it's the same question,” he said. “They cannot shoot 10 for 10 from three-point. I can shoot like 10 for 10 under the rim easy.”
VS. OKLAHOMA CITY
When: 7:30 p.m., Friday
On the air: TV — Prime Ticket; Radio — 570, 1330.