As their offense flowed, their superstar cooked and their defense played “scary” good, the Clippers mowed through the season’s first two games with the look of a team that might play through June.
Then came Saturday, when they struggled to play through a whole defensive possession against Phoenix, a projected lower-tier Western Conference team missing two starters and playing for a second consecutive night.
The result would have been head-scratching, had the underlying reason not been so straightforward.
“I didn’t feel like we had great focus,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Two days later, another puzzling start was unfolding by the first quarter’s end Monday at Staples Center.
The defensive edge that held Charlotte scoreless on its first four possessions had dulled. A 14-point Clippers lead had been vaporized by a 17-4 Hornets run to end the quarter. Their precision half-court offense, which hummed in finding sharpshooter Landry Shamet open for four first-quarter three-pointers, had committed nine turnovers.
The Hornets, a young team playing here for a second straight night after losing to the Lakers, were within a point of the lead.
And that’s where the similarities between the games ended.
Over the next three quarters the Clippers’ star power and fresher legs eventually wore down a team projected to finish with one of the worst records in the NBA for a 111-96 victory.
The game was a reminder that though the Clippers (3-1) have the potential to make games look easy, it doesn’t mean they will be, no matter the opponent.
It was also a reminder that it sure helps to have Kawhi Leonard and a defense that allowed only 42 points after halftime.
“Our team defense is still growing,” Rivers said. “The first part of a great team defense is the individuals, and so we have that part down. Now, once we get everybody working together, communicating, then I think our defense can be absolutely, unbelievably dangerous.”
Leonard scored a game-high 30 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists.
Even better for the Clippers, was that he did it in 29 minutes, less than the 30 to 35 per night the team targeted as his limit as it attempts to ensure he will be as healthy as possible six months down the road, when the postseason begins.
Even for a roster as talented as the Clippers’, April feels like a long way off, as they continue to work out the kinks of their communication.
In Phoenix, the Clippers allowed 130 points, which led Leonard to shake his head in the locker room afterward.
“We got lackadaisical on defense down there,” forward Montrezl Harrell said.
The Clippers tightened Monday thanks to Leonard, who stole two passes and blocked three shots, including a fourth-quarter play in which he saw Hornets center Cody Zeller catch the ball on the block, alone for a basket, only to slide over and deny the dunk.
Just as important were the contributions of center Ivica Zubac, whose five blocks were a career high. He also scored seven points and grabbed six rebounds. The Clippers outscored Charlotte by 21 when he was on the floor.
“We need him to be big, you know, because he is big,” Rivers said. “And so just be big, be large. I tell him be large, be heavy, be all the things you are every night. They need to feel you every night, and I thought tonight he was a force, like you can feel Zu’s presence on the floor.”
Harrell finished with 19 points and seven rebounds and fellow reserve Lou Williams had 23 points and four assists to go with four rebounds. Shamet scored all of his season-high 16 points in the first half.
Terry Rozier scored a team-high 17 points for Charlotte (2-2).
Williams called the victory a “good bounce-back effort.”
The defense was hardly a force in their loss to the Suns, and though there were many reasons for the Clippers to be irked as they left Arizona, it was that effort that stung most. Only days earlier, guard Patrick Beverley, following a performance in which the Clippers smothered Golden State for a 2-0 start, referred to the team’s defensive potential as “scary.”
“We should win a lot of games when we have a bad offensive night and win a lot of games with our defense,” Rivers said. “I don’t think we should ever lose a game because of our defense, and I thought the other night we lost the game because of it.”
There were open three-pointers aplenty for Charlotte in the first quarter, as well. But it wasn’t the defense that put the Clippers in trouble Monday, but their 21 turnovers that led to 33 Hornets points.
The bench was a culprit. Typically a stabilizing force, the reserves were instead responsible for much of the late first-quarter meltdown.
“The starting lineup tonight was fantastic,” Rivers said. “They got us off to a great start. They played with great defensive intensity. Then the second group came in and kind of let up, which is unusual for a second group.”