The Clippers missed their first seven shots Wednesday night.
They turned the ball over four times before scoring their first points.
Down nine, they rallied to lead Milwaukee before the first quarter’s end — only to trail by 17 eight minutes later.
Their best player was on the sideline in a blue sports coat, watching while Milwaukee’s best player was uncharacteristically sinking as many three-point shots as he’d made all season.
There were several reasons why the Clippers should not have been hanging with a contender to win the Eastern Conference. And yet, with 23 seconds remaining in a chaotic fourth quarter, they trailed by only two points and the entirety of Staples Center’s lower bowl seemed to be standing, waiting for the moment that seemed so distant only hours earlier.
It was a tantalizing prospect that felt straight out of last season — a star-less Clippers lineup grinding down an opponent boasting 7-foot league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
But by removing Kawhi Leonard from the lineup — the second game this season he has missed for load management of his knee — the Clippers also eliminated any margin for error. And unable to rely on the NBA’s top fourth-quarter scorer, the Clippers closed the gap, but couldn’t catch up to their foe.
Instead it was Bucks 129, Clippers 124.
“That was great,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I want to win the game though.”
Montrezl Harrell (a career-high 34 points, plus 13 rebounds), Lou Williams (34 points) and Patrick Beverley (20 points, 10 rebounds) did everything possible to do just that, with their scoring offsetting the stretches in which the Clippers’ offense, down one of the league’s best shot-makers in Leonard, disappeared.
Harrell, in particular, at times resembled a 6-foot-7 bulldozer with braids as he bulled to the rim with a collection of dunks and floaters. “We just gave him the ball, spaced the floor and he went and got it,” Rivers said. “That tells you he’s a heck of a player. We needed every basket. He was phenomenal.”
Outside of that trio, however, the rest of the Clippers managed just 36 points. Their defense held Milwaukee to 42 points in the paint, four off their target. But they couldn’t keep the irrepressible Antetokounmpo out of the key forever, as he made three shots within four feet in the final quarter to finish with 38 points, to go with 16 rebounds and nine assists. He also made his impact felt beyond the arc, with four three-pointers.
In last season’s Eastern Conference finals, Leonard locked up Antetokounmpo defensively over the final four games while playing with Toronto, leading the Raptors to a berth in the NBA Finals. But he could not repeat the effort Wednesday, part of the team’s plan to increase their long-term playoff odds by incurring some short-term pain in the standings.
“Kawhi is gonna sit out for games, it’s going to happen, man, so we can’t put that all on him,” Harrell said. “He’s got to take care of his body just like every other athlete on this team, so, just because he’s sitting out of the game, that don’t mean we got the right to drop a game.”
The Clippers are now 0-2 in games Leonard has sat out and there will be more absences to come. The team’s medical staff has determined that Leonard is not yet healthy to play on consecutive nights, a determination the NBA’s medical staff agree with, a league spokesman said Wednesday in addressing the Clippers’ load management strategy.
“There’s no concern here, but we want to make sure,” Rivers said of Leonard’s health. “I think Kawhi made a statement that he’s never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way. That’s important. But he played a lot of minutes in the playoffs last year.
“So, it’s not a health thing, really. It is in some ways. We want him to just keep feeling better and getting better.”
The Clippers are set to get better soon. Injured forward Paul George is expected to take part in his first “live” drills of the season Saturday, a person with knowledge of the plans confirmed.
George, who underwent surgery on both shoulders in the offseason, will give the Clippers more offensive firepower and length defensively on nights when Leonard sits — and vice versa too. His return will give the Clippers the margin for error they lacked against the Bucks.
“There’s no moral victory in anything,” Beverley said. “But we took a step forward, for sure.”