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Celtics clutch, Clippers aren’t: Five takeaways from L.A.'s loss to Boston

The Celtics' Jayson Tatum dunks over the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard late in the first half at Staples Center.
The Celtics’ Jayson Tatum dunks over the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard on Friday night at Staples Center. Tatum scored 34 points in Boston’s 119-115 win.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The damage of Friday night’s third quarter was done. And still, the Clippers had a win within their grasp.

With 36 seconds remaining and the Clippers up by one, Nicolas Batum held his ground against Boston star Jayson Tatum, forcing a second consecutive empty Celtics possession. But the ball was bobbled near midcourt, out of Kawhi Leonard’s hands, and was back to Boston’s Kemba Walker, who nailed a mid-range jump shot for a one-point lead with 32 seconds left.

The Clippers never led again in what became a 119-115 defeat at Staples Center. Five takeaways from their first home loss since Jan. 5:

Paul George sidelined

Paul George was ruled out because of swelling in a bone in his right foot. Coach Tyronn Lue said he did not know how long George could be out. Given his production — 24.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and a career-high 5.5 assists and 62% effective field-goal percentage — and the fact the team is now without two starters after Patrick Beverley (sore knee) missed his seventh consecutive game, George’s absence clearly lowers the margin for error for however long he is out.

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“We’re going to miss him,” Lue said before tipoff.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue isn’t sure how much time Paul George could miss as the star guard deals with a bone swelling in a toe on his right foot.

Pressure for playmakers

Losing George added an extra playmaking burden to a roster whose lack of a so-called pure point guard has been considered its weakness despite a blistering start. The Clippers started backup guard Luke Kennard in place of George, whose workload also will need to be shouldered primarily by sixth man Lou Williams and Reggie Jackson, who has started in Beverley’s place, Lue said.

“Those are the two guys that we can run pick-and-roll and run plays through, along with Luke Kennard, being able to make plays for each other as well,” Lue said. “We’ve got to do it by committee.”

And they did to start Friday, assisting on 15 of their first 20 field goals, with six players contributing.

Of course, this was a Celtics team missing 6-foot-6 guard Jaylen Brown, exactly the type of long-armed, active defender who could have applied more pressure on the Clippers’ guards.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 119-115 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday night at Staples Center.

Filling the void

Because of George’s void and recent history, two stretches immediately stood out as potential problems: the Clippers’ minutes when Leonard wasn’t on the floor, and their finish to the first half.

The Clippers navigated the first without issue. Leading by 12 when Leonard checked out after playing the entire first quarter, they were still up 10 six minutes later when he returned.

With the second, there was slippage. It wasn’t to the level of Tuesday in Brooklyn, when an 11-point lead late in the first half was just one at halftime in an eventual loss, but the Clippers were outscored 9-4 in the final 2 minutes 43 seconds of the first half, which trimmed what had been a 16-point lead to 11. Eight minutes later, after an 13-2 Boston run, the Celtics had their first lead.

The Clippers' Nicolas Batum, left, gives Kawhi Leonard encouragement after a defensive stand.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Mixed bag by Luke Kennard

Has any Clipper this season needed a bounce-back first half more than Kennard needed his 13 points in his first 16 minutes against the Celtics? Kennard made five of his first seven shots and all three of his three-pointers coming off what he called an “up and down” road trip that saw him play just 15 minutes combined against New York and Brooklyn. After a “good conversation” with Lue before the road trip’s finale in Cleveland, Kennard played well in 22 minutes, but against Boston the 24-year-old looked exactly like the type of confident player the team has expected all along since trading for him in November. When Boston put two defenders on the ball in pick-and-rolls, Kennard took advantage with open shots.

“I have to do a better job of competing harder,” Kennard said. “[In] a couple games, not like I was approaching it in the wrong way, but just kind of overthinking a little bit, just not letting the game come to me and just playing my game.”

But this was also a reminder of the work still to be done. In the second half Kennard didn’t score, and took only two shots, while registering one assist.

“I thought Luke did a good job,” Lue said.

Kawhi Leonard criticized the decision to hold the All-Star game, saying he isn’t surprised the NBA is planning to play the game amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Third-quarter collapse

The Clippers have owned third quarters, outscoring opponents by a league-best 4.7 points and producing an NBA-best net rating, scoring 18 points more than they allow in the quarter per 100 possessions. To put that number in context, only one other team has a third-quarter net rating higher than seven.

Yet it was their downfall against Boston, outscored by 18 as the Celtics made eight of 11 three-pointers and 15 of 24 shots behind a smaller lineup that the Clippers struggled to adjust to. They shot 28% in the quarter, and Leonard was just one for six while facing double teams. Tatum scored 12 of his 34 in the frame.

“They went small, switching one through five, and it made us stagnant,” Lue said.


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