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Clippers look lost late against Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bucks in defeat

Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo drives for a layup in front of the Clippers' Marcus Morris, Ivica Zubac and Paul George.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo drives for a layup in front of the Clippers’ Marcus Morris, left, Ivica Zubac, center, and Paul George during the Clippers’ 105-100 loss Sunday.
(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

It began as a duel, 44 minutes of back-and-forth between two of the NBA’s best teams.

It ended for the Clippers with eight scoreless possessions, four minutes of regret and a one-sided finish.

When it was over, a 105-100 Milwaukee victory sealed as the Bucks scored the game’s final nine points over the last four minutes — a stretch in which Giannis Antetokoumpo, had seven points while Clippers stars Paul George and Kawhi Leonard clanged their last eight shots — Clippers coach Tyronn Lue scoffed at any suggestion the loss told a larger story than one afternoon in Fiserv Forum.

“We just lost the game, that’s it,” Lue said. “We shot 44 threes, only made 14 and I thought we had a lot of good looks we didn’t make. Defensively I thought we were pretty good outside of transition, but we lost the game. OK.

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“All these people acting like the world’s over.”

Neither are the Clippers’ title-contending ambitions, but their chance at claiming another credential-burnishing victory was done after Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton corralled the rebound from Leonard’s potential tying three-pointer from 27 feet with seven seconds remaining. Over his head, Antetokounmpo raised in celebration the two hands that had scored 36 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, collected five assists and blocked four shots.

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Highlights from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 105-100 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021.

Only four seconds earlier, the league’s two-time most valuable player scored his last basket by collecting a pass with his left foot 23 feet from the basket, taking two massive strides and flushing a vicious dunk.

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“Giannis dominated the last four minutes,” Lue said. “I thought he got whatever he wanted.”

Few players present a physical challenge to the degree of the 6-foot-11 “Greek Freak,” which is why there are also few opportunities each season to capitalize on the kind the Clippers (24-12) had Sunday, when they’d overcome mistakes in defensive focus, and the potential fatigue of playing three games in 67 hours, to roar back from an 11-point, third-quarter deficit to lead by seven with 8 minutes 34 seconds left as Marcus Morris and Lou Williams began to sizzle offensively.

Their lead only shrank from that point, after which Antetokounmpo outscored the Clippers 17-10. Such a finish marred the comeback that began in the third by choking off Milwaukee’s transition opportunities and seeing center Serge Ibaka score 12 of his 15 points.

“Down that last four minutes we kind of walked the ball up,” George said. “We played slow in the half court and we didn’t really give ourselves a chance by the time we got to half court — we tried to set up a guard, like, you know, 12, 13 seconds on the clock. I thought we should’ve just pushed the pace — that’s on us.”

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Leonard finished with 25 points, nine rebounds and three assists while George added 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists.

The Clippers made two more three-pointers and two more field goals than the Bucks (21-13), yet were edged 22-7 in free-throw attempts and 22-2 in transition points en route to Milwaukee’s fifth consecutive win. To help a team ranking 26th in pace overall and 24th in fourth quarters, the Clippers must improve by attacking defenses faster than they can load up.

“I felt like we got stagnant a little bit,” Leonard said.

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The Clippers entered Sunday with the league’s largest negative gap between points given up and scored in the last five minutes of games within five points, the NBA’s definition of clutch. Yet they’d also played the second-fewest “clutch” minutes — just 33 — and three close defeats this month had slipped away with a significant caveat given George was unavailable. Those results from that slice of season, however tiny, has sparked debate about whether the Clippers need to add a guard to better set up their stars, either with pace or passing.

Whether it’s possible to find an upgrade is one question. With few draft picks to deal and few players with whom the team would likely be willing to part, there are few obvious pathways, and the potential buyout market remains murky. How much it’s truly needed is another.

Of their nine consecutive late misses, George missed an in-rhythm three-pointer with a defender scrambling to close out with 3 minutes to play, then couldn’t finish a drive to the basket with 1:35 remaining. The offense hadn’t performed to expectations, Lue said, but also “we had a lot of good looks we didn’t make.”

“We have good strides in games, closing them out and making the shots that we need to,” Leonard said. “It was just one of those nights.

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“Like I said we need to get better. … Some teams come down in the flow of the pace and know exactly what they’re doing. Those are the teams that usually win. You’re not thinking, you’re coming down, getting into a set. But we’re all learning each other. We’re learning T-Lue so it’s just a learning process.”


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