Clippers, missing Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, watch Hawks snap winning streak
The Clippers’ seven-game winning streak is over.
Now, the uncertainty surrounding when their short-handed roster will be able to start another has just begun.
In a 108-99 loss Tuesday in Atlanta, the Clippers flashed heady perimeter defense at times, running over the top of screens to make the quick-trigger Hawks think twice about firing from deep. There was a double-double by center Ivica Zubac and encouraging offensive performances by reserves-turned-starters Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard.
There was fight in the first half and fourth quarter and enough focus to largely take away second-chance points, an area in which Atlanta has been second to none this season.
A game that could have been one-sided was instead winnable with 79 seconds left, after a free throw by Jackson cut Atlanta’s lead to just five.
But none of that could change the fact that three starters from the NBA’s best statistical lineup are away from the Clippers indefinitely, or that the team has remained mum on when light at the end of the tunnel might appear, with five games left on this trip. Asked before tipoff whether he expected forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and guard Patrick Beverley to meet the team at some point over the next eight days, coach Tyronn Lue said he was “not sure yet.”
The Clippers have won seven straight games and will look to maintain that pace during a six-game trip beginning Tuesday in Atlanta.
“We can’t go out there and try to wake up and be Kawhi, PG and Pat,” said guard Lou Williams, whose shooting struggles over the last five games, and lingering hip pain, continued as he scored 11 points. “What those guys give us on the defensive end and on offensive end, we can’t go out there and try to re-create it. We got to be ourselves and play on a string.”
With George and Leonard still in Southern California after entering the NBA’s health and safety protocols Monday, and Beverley on the West Coast too, resting the right knee he injured Sunday, whiplash appears likely to set in for the Clippers.
Through the season’s first month, the Clippers (13-5) had emerged as one of the NBA’s hottest teams in large part because they were one of the few teams to avoid a rash of absences stemming from the league’s health and safety protocols. But now it has hit their roster, and hard — subtracting the nearly 50 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists Leonard and George had combined to average each game.
It left the league’s hottest-shooting offense amid the streak scramble for points after making 30% of its threes for a third consecutive game, unable to take advantage when the Hawks’ switching led to mismatches Leonard or George typically would exploit.
And while Beverley sent encouraging text messages to teammates throughout the game, it wasn’t the same as having his timely offensive rebounding or his pestering defense that might have made life more difficult for Hawks guard Trae Young. He scored 26 of his game-high 38 points after halftime, when his threes began to dull the effectiveness of the Clippers’ zone during a third quarter in which they were outscored by 11.
“We were told right before we were taking off [on Monday’s flight] that those guys would probably join us later on in the trip or maybe not come on the trip,” Williams said. “For us, everybody is professional. You got to still be prepared for the game. I thought tonight was a great opportunity for everybody on our team to step up, play harder and try to fill those voids and [we] fell short.”
Jackson said his conversations with Beverley, Leonard and George suggested “mentally they’re in the right place, they’re doing all they can to get back as soon as possible.”
The Clippers had led by seven points and center Serge Ibaka scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half. After making two of his previous 12 three-pointers, Kennard made two of five from deep to finish with 13 points. He joined Terance Mann (10 points) and Jackson (20 points, eight assists, seven rebounds) as the reserves who were elevated to starters.
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Scoreless through three quarters, Hawks guard Kevin Huerter erupted for 13 points in the fourth, capped by a three-pointer with 64 seconds remaining that widened Atlanta’s lead from five to eight. The Clippers couldn’t close the gap, scoring three more points.
Since the season’s start, Lue repeatedly has told his team that the pandemic would force it to adapt. Down two leading scorers and the team’s emotional heartbeat, the task is now finding ways to survive the rest of the road trip.
“Our focus is great, spirits are great,” Lue said. “We understand the situation. A lot of teams are going through it; we’re no different. We just got to be able to adjust and adapt, and get the best out of the guys who are playing.”
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