Seventeen days after their last home game, Clippers players returned to Staples Center on Saturday and found that more than their roster had changed during their time away.
In a reconfigured dressing room, new forward Marcus Morris sits at the locker last used by Maurice Harkless, the player for whom he was traded Feb. 6. To Morris’ right, lockers belonging to Kawhi Leonard and Paul George remained unchanged, but George sits next to point guard Reggie Jackson too, one of his closest friends, and his newest teammate, after Jackson’s signing Thursday following his buyout in Detroit. Jackson’s locker formerly belonged to center Johnathan Motley, but he sits four seats away in a space that became vacant after Jerome Robinson was traded to Washington.
In this game of musical chairs, the Clippers are still having difficulty finding where they all fit.
Hampered by making one of their first 14 shots, scoring two points in the fourth quarter’s final six minutes, committing 19 turnovers and starting two new players while playing without two established stars, the Clippers lost to Sacramento 112-103.
It was a reminder that for all that has changed in recent weeks, some things have stayed the same, chiefly struggles with continuity and urgency.
It marked their second home loss in three weeks to Sacramento, a team that is only 9-18 on the road against everyone else.
“I just don’t feel like we were locked in early and it just took too late,” said forward Kawhi Leonard, whose 31 points led all scorers. “It was too late for us to turn that switch on.”
Reserve guard Lou Williams embodied that flipped switch. Through three quarters, he had more turnovers (eight) than baskets (five). He scored nine points in the fourth quarter to finish with 24 points.
“Eight was entirely too much,” Williams said. “I feel like I cut that in half, we win the game.
He added: “We waited too long to start playing, start playing hard.”
One turnover began when Williams took an inbounds pass from JaMychal Green and turned his back on the other eight players on the court to discuss something with Green. De’Aaron Fox sprinted up from behind and ripped the ball away.
Coach Doc Rivers ripped into Williams in the moment, but afterward said he didn’t see the play as emblematic of a team-wide loss of focus.
Some of the disjointed effort was predictable. The team’s 28th different starting lineup was necessary after Patrick Beverley and George were held out despite practicing Thursday and Friday. In Beverley’s place the Clippers started Jackson at point guard even though he’d signed two days earlier. His nine seasons of NBA experience have sped up his adjustment but “he’s trying to run sets that he doesn’t know,” Rivers said. “I think that’s very difficult.”
Jackson finished with eight points, four assists and two turnovers in 22 minutes.
Even amid established teammates, however, communication breakdowns were evident. In the second half, after Williams and Green’s turnover, Leonard was visibly frustrated at Landry Shamet when a play run wrong led to a turnover.
“We didn’t have rhythm before, so you’re bringing in new guys with other guys who probably don’t have great continuity as well,” Rivers said.
“Sometimes your timing is off, it looks like you don’t have focus. I thought guys were trying to stay out of the way of each other so I don’t think anybody didn’t show up, I just didn’t think we played well.”
Kent Bazemore scored a season-high 23 points to lead the Kings, and Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic each scored 20.
Despite making only 11 of their first 41 shots, the Clippers trailed by only six points at halftime and they sliced a 12-point deficit with three minutes remaining in the third quarter to four points less than a minute later after an 8-0 run capped by a three-point basket by Williams.
Montrezl Harrell’s basket with 8:29 remaining led to the Clippers’ first lead, and out of a Sacramento timeout, Williams added to it with a line drive toward the rim.
Then the Clippers offense stalled and their defense became a sieve.
It was the Clippers’ third consecutive loss and their fourth in their last five games.
“Definitely not a concern,” Williams said. “We’ve lost three games in a row before, not this particular group, but everybody in this locker room has experienced it, and as far as the standings go, I think we’re still in a good space. We’re still working out some kinks as far as everything and so it’s nothing to be concerned about, but we gotta get the next one.”
Asked at what point he wants to see the Clippers’ potential come together, with 26 games remaining in the regular season, Leonard said, “The time is now.”