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Five takeaways from the Clippers’ 116-113 loss to the Spurs

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue yells from the bench.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue realizes the defense needs to improve.
(Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The Clippers had little time to dwell on Tuesday’s 116-113 loss to San Antonio at Staples Center before starting an unusual road trip.

Wednesday’s game against Golden State marked the only time during the first half of their schedule that the Clippers (5-3) would play home-and-road games back-to-back. It is also the first of two straight games against the Warriors in San Francisco, the first time the Clippers are experiencing the “baseball-style” road trip the NBA instituted this season to reduce travel amid a pandemic.

Five takeaways from the Clippers’ loss to the Spurs:

1. Slow starts have become a hallmark of losses.

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En route to defeats against Dallas, Utah and San Antonio, the Clippers have trailed by at least 18 points in the first half, and those slow starts have poor three-point shooting — a combined 4-for-24 in the first quarter — in common.

It isn’t the only factor contributing to their deficits, but it’s notable given the increased weight three-pointers hold for the team. Three-pointers accounted for 37% of the team’s field goals last season, and that share has bumped up to 40% under coach Tyronn Lue.

“I wish I had the answer right now, it wouldn’t happen, but it happens,” Lue said of slow starts. “We missed shots. I think, early on, we settled for the three-point shot too early. I think Serge [Ibaka] took two early ones, and I think we had one more instead of attacking the basket with them not having too much shot blocking in there, so the way we started the game offensively has a lot to do with our defense.”

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard was saddened that no charges will be brought in the Jacob Blake shooting yet hopeful that changes will be made in policing.

2. Having more shooters has opened up the Clippers’ offense. There’s also a downside.

Lue’s comment revealed the double-edged-sword of the team’s offensive approach. All in the starting five of Ibaka, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley and Nicolas Batum are career shooters of at least 35% from deep, and when Marcus Morris (sore knee) returns, they’ll have another career 36% three-point shooter at their disposal. Ibaka’s ability to stretch the floor has raised the ceiling for the Clippers’ offense, but as seen Tuesday, all that shooting can lead to complacency to fire away.

It’s become clear that Lue wants his offense to limit mistakes while applying pressure through drives into the paint. The Clippers were good on the former Tuesday (only three first-quarter turnovers) but lacking in the latter.

“We really didn’t touch the paint at all on the offensive end; we got some quick shots up,” Leonard said. “And then from there we started to build and get a rhythm.”

3. The Clippers allow a lot of three-pointers, and their defense will be tested again by the Warriors.

Associate head coach Dan Craig, the architect of the Clippers’ defense, helped oversee a stingy unit in Miami by often employing a zone to protect the paint and daring opponents to beat them from outside. It usually worked: In 2018-19, Heat opponents ranked in the middle of the NBA in three-point accuracy; last season, they shot 34%, fifth-worst in the NBA.

This season, 44% of the shots taken by the Clippers’ opponents have come from behind the arc, the NBA’s third-highest rate, and the Clippers generally have fared well, allowing only 35% of makes. But when opponents are hot, it can really make life difficult in a hurry for the Clippers. San Antonio made 20 of its 40 threes, though not all were in the half-court.

“Taking away the paint, and then getting back out to close out the three-point shooters, I think is our philosophy,” Lue said. “If we protect the paint and we can do both, we can try to do that, but Patty Mills’ shots wasn’t from shrinking the floor, it was more so in transition, coming off screens, pick the picker, pick and roll when our bigs weren’t up like we’re supposed to be. So I would attribute those threes to that.”

Veteran forward Nicolas Batum is off to a good start in his first season with the Clippers after a lackluster last 18 months he experienced with Charlotte.

Stephen Curry, a career 46% three-point shooter against the Clippers, will be another supreme challenge. Beverley said the Clippers wouldn’t live and die by opponents deep shooting but something else that tied into perimeter defense.

“Live and die on how hard you play from beginning to end,” he said. “I think that’s with any team, on any basketball game.”

4. Kawhi’s development as a playmaker was impressive last season. This season, he’s been better.

After tying his career high with 10 assists Tuesday, Leonard’s assist rate jumped to a career-high 32.7% through his six games. That’s a jump of six percentage points from last season, which itself was an increase of 10 percentage points from his championship season in Toronto. At the same time, Leonard has decreased his turnover rate to a career-low 5%.

“Coming into the league, nobody knew who I was and it was nothing expected of me,” Leonard said. “I’m not getting the ball. Now you know I’m able to touch the ball a lot more, get in some pick and rolls, get in some isolation situations, and just finding my guys. The big thing is you know my teammates are knocking down shots. And that’s how you get an assist so I give him the credit. You know, I thank them for making shots.”

Spurs assistant Becky Hammon was prepared when she became the first woman to serve as an NBA head coach after Gregg Popovich was ejected against L.A.

5. Where’s the bench?

Montrezl Harrell’s postseason performance left much to be desired within the Clippers, leading the franchise to choose to move on without him in free agency, but the team always could bank on getting consistent offensive output from last season’s top reserve during the regular season. It was the kind of constant that was vital when so much of the lineup was in flux because of injuries.

With Paul George out versus San Antonio, which removed Luke Kennard from the bench to the starting five, the Clippers struggled to generate quality offensive looks during the non-starter minutes. In the second quarter, when the Clippers were outscored by 10 points, reserves combined to make one of 10 field-goal attempts.

After receiving league-leading averages of 53 and 50 points per game from their bench the last two seasons, the Clippers now rank 13th with 36.4 points from the bench.


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