A team that has been trying to figure out its identity learned some unhappy truths about itself Saturday.
The premise and promise of the Clippers’ season has been that they would become a great team when everyone becomes healthy and they can practice and play cohesively, but what if who they were in their atrocious 140-114 loss to Memphis is who they will remain?
They were booed off the court at Staples Center, an entirely reasonable reaction to a performance that lacked fire and focus. Paul George and Patrick Beverley were missing because of injuries, but that doesn’t begin to explain or excuse why the Clippers allowed the Grizzlies to score more points than any other opponent has scored against them this season.
“It’s not even about craft at this point,” Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard said. “You don’t have to be a skilled player to be able to have energy and talk on defense.”
They had no life Saturday, no resolve, no serious pushback. They led once, at 2-0.
“They beat our ass from the beginning to the end of the game,” Clippers reserve forward Montrezl Harrell said of the Grizzlies.
The Clippers have been flat since their Christmas Day victory over the Lakers — the only game this season they’ve had a fully healthy roster. Beating the Lakers won’t win them a banner.
The Clippers can’t assume they’ll win any game. That’s what they thought Saturday, and they failed miserably.
“You come in no matter what time the game is, no matter what’s going on, if you’re just thinking you’re just going to walk on the floor and beat another professional NBA basketball team, you’re kidding yourself. It’s just not going to happen,” a visibly upset Harrell said in the quiet Clippers locker room. “So if we [don’t] wake up and figure it out now, we’re just going to have a full up-and-down season for the whole year.”
Injuries are unavoidable, but the Clippers’ lack of lineup consistency is partly their own fault. They were so intent on adding Leonard that they agreed to continue the load-management policy he followed last season with Toronto, with the idea of keeping him fresh for the playoffs. Despite their depth, the Clippers haven’t been able to get by without him: They’re 4-5 in games he missed, as many losses as Toronto recorded all of last season when he skipped games (17-5). Every game the Clippers lose without him puts them in a potentially tougher playoff position, making their road more difficult even if he is fit and rested in April.
Leonard hasn’t played back-to-back games since late in the 2016-17 season. As much as the Clippers need him Sunday, when they will complete a back-to-back sequence with an afternoon game against the 10-25 New York Knicks, there’s no reason to believe Leonard will make an exception and will play. So that means more inconsistency, more adjustments to a team that needs sameness and stability as it nears the halfway point of the season.
Coach Doc Rivers acknowledged developing a team identity has been an unexpectedly difficult process.
“You don’t go into a year thinking you’re going to have it like this,” he said before the game. “You think you’re going to have a healthy roster at some point, this late in the season.
“I tell you where I think it hurts us the most, we just, the continuity that we need to be a champion, to me, it’s hard to work on it or even have because you don’t have time, and so I’m not worried about it yet but it is actually on my mind, for sure.”
He has reason to be worried now. Asked to describe the sentiment in the locker room after Saturday’s loss, Harrell looked downcast.
“I don’t know, brother. I don’t know,” he said, “and that may be another problem right there.”
They should have been angry at giving up 140 points and utterly abandoning their discipline on defense.
“It’s just unacceptable,” reserve guard Lou Williams said, “and at the same time, I felt we gave them a lot of confidence early and it went on for four quarters and they just did their thing.”
Leonard, who scored 24 points on eight-for-24 shooting, said this was a time to remain on an even emotional keel rather than a sense of urgency to figure things out.
“Just gotta know that you’re gonna do better and trust everyone and just keep moving,” he said. “We’re a good team right now, but we have to get over a hump to be able to be great.”
First they have to play like they want to be great. They didn’t play that way Saturday.
“I expect my team, we’re grown men in here, to see that this is not the team that we want to be,” Harrell said. “We play one way and play great against the teams that we feel are great, and then we walk in and just show up to the teams that we think we’re supposed to beat. To get embarrassed and have your home [fans] booing you off the floor, that should wake anybody up.”