Early in the fourth quarter, the Milwaukee Bucks’ fans gave the Clippers a standing ovation.
With his team down 34 points, Clippers coach Doc Rivers had seen everything he needed to and decided to end the night for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. And as the five walked toward the bench, the Bucks’ crowd wanted to say “thanks.”
As Rivers pulled the plug on a game his team would go on to lose 119-91, everyone stood and cheered.
“I wanted to pull it earlier. Honestly, I really did,” Rivers said afterward. “We weren’t gonna win the game tonight. There was no comeback in us. You could see that. They’re the better team right now, and we have a lot of work to do. But we kinda know that too.”
More than anything, that’s what was clearest Friday night in Milwaukee — the Bucks are a team that knows what it does best and, most importantly, how to do it. The Clippers? They’re still a team that’s trying to find all that out.
“You see it — a team that knows each other and [a team] that is learning to learn each other,” Clippers forward Paul George said.
A lot of nights, even when the Clippers are only now “learning to learn” one another, it doesn’t matter. They’re good enough to score, tough enough to defend, deep enough to win. But cast against the Bucks, the Clippers were exposed as a team that doesn’t even know how to run the right plays.
“We’re just a work in progress. We just got to keep our heads high and know better days our coming,” forward Kawhi Leonard said. “This team is just really kind of put together this year. We’ve got to figure it out. Some of us don’t know the plays coming down, and it’s hard to get in our sets.”
They’ve survived that handicap in their 16 wins this season, scoring as many as 140 points three times already. But the Clippers are still trying to figure out how to best use George and Leonard together.
“We have not maximized them offensively yet. I’ve been saying it every game, and nobody wants to hear it. We keep looking at our offensive numbers, and I‘ve been saying it — it’s fool’s gold,” Rivers said. “We’re not ready offensively yet. And our numbers say different. But this is where, analytically, I’m right. I can see it. I said it.
“What did we have, 140 the other night? I said, ‘Guys, we’re not a good offensive team yet.’ People look at me like I’m nuts. I think tonight is a great example of that.”
The numbers say the Clippers are the seventh-best offensive team in the NBA. Their coach says they’re not close to what they could be.
“Yeah, that’s just talent getting us over. Talent is getting us through a lot of these games,” Williams said. “And what we are going to need to be successful at a high level is going to have to be chemistry. It is going to have to be everybody is going to know where everybody is on the floor and know all the positions. And that stuff comes over time.”
It, as much as anything, cost the Clippers on Friday.
Before Rivers was thinking about calling it a night, even when his team was struggling, the Clippers had a chance. George drove the ball into the paint and saw Beverley’s defender help. He quickly fired a pass to the corner, where Beverley would be open for a three — except Beverley went the other way.
The ball flew into the stands — one of the Clippers’ 21 turnovers — and the Bucks answered with a three-pointer to push the lead back to 10.
“We are not close to it at all,” George said. “That’s a big indication right there that we are not in sync. We are thinking differently offensively, and that’s what we are going to have to get better with.”
And against a team like Milwaukee, a team with so much obvious continuity and identity, the Clippers’ issues were as clear as ever.