Column: Clippers remind us why their championship hopes once again could collapse
If the Clippers made a clear statement about themselves and their championship hopes by beating league-leading Utah last week to end the Jazz’s nine-game winning streak, what they’ve done since then is more difficult to interpret.
The team that handed Utah only its second loss in 22 games also split a pair of games with the rebuilding Memphis Grizzlies and lost to the East super-team Brooklyn Nets while alternating wins and losses over the last eight games. The Clippers’ slow-moving, cold-shooting fourth quarter at Milwaukee on Sunday consigned them to another loss to another top contender and gave Giannis Antetokounmpo freedom to enjoy a 36-point, 14-rebound, five-assist spree in the Bucks’ 105-100 victory at Fiserv Forum.
“Just one of those nights,” forward Kawhi Leonard said, providing little comfort to Clippers fans who have endured too many of “those nights” over the years.
Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo played like a two-time NBA MVP, spearheading a late charge by the Bucks to send the Clippers to a 105-100 loss.
Coach Tyronn Lue was left to repeat that in the closing minutes Antetokounmpo “got whatever he wanted,” which was true. No matter whom the Clippers threw at Antetokounmpo, the two-time NBA most valuable player found a way over, around or through them and to the basket.
He could have illuminated the city of Milwaukee with his smile after he pulled off a beautiful cutting dunk that put the Bucks ahead 103-100 with 10.3 seconds left. He scored 17 points in the fourth quarter on six-for-nine shooting.
“Got downhill, got into the paint, finished a lot, made his free throws,” Lue said.
That doesn’t take into account Antetokounmpo’s three blocked shots in the final quarter. He was everywhere, and the Clippers couldn’t contain him.
“A lot of times, he got into the paint and no one was there to help. But he’s a good player; he does it every night,” Leonard said. “I mean, it’s why he won the MVP last year, and yeah. He’s a great player.”
Lue wouldn’t say if the loss told him anything he didn’t already know about his team, or if it affirmed anything he did know about weak spots the Clippers (24-12) will have to fix as they launch the second half of this shortened season.
Highlights from the Milwaukee Bucks’ 105-100 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021.
“We just lost the game, that’s it. We shot 44 threes, we only made 14, and I thought we had a lot of good looks we didn’t make,” he said in a videoconference. “Defensively I thought we were pretty good outside of transition but we lost the game. OK,” he said, with a small chuckling sound. “All these people acting like the world’s over.”
No one is saying that, but it’s fair to look at the Clippers’ loss in the context of the bigger picture and wonder if this was merely a great day for Antetokounmpo or a sign the Clippers won’t be able to handle elite teams in the playoffs.
The Clippers have provided reasons to believe they can stand toe-to-toe with the best, most recently when they beat Utah on Feb. 19 with Leonard and Paul George back in the lineup after recovering from injuries. But when George shoots as he did Sunday (seven for 21, including two for 10 from three-point range) and when they slow the tempo offensively and can’t make threes, as happened Sunday, they give reasons to suspect they won’t be able to win consistently when it counts.
Leonard said the Clippers’ offense “got stagnant a little bit” under pressure by the defensively locked-in Bucks. Revitalizing their offense should be their first priority. They didn’t fire Doc Rivers and replace him with Lue to make yet another second-round playoff exit.
George, who’s in a 16-for-44 shooting slump over the last three games, said that as so-called measuring-stick games go, Sunday’s encounter with the Bucks was a good occasion for the Clippers to take stock of where they stand.
“A fun challenge. I think we met it,” he said. “Again, some things we could’ve done better, but it’s the reason we get to play teams twice.
“It’s good; it’s a good matchup. Milwaukee is a team that could possibly be in the Finals. We’re a team that could possibly be in the Finals. So, it’s again, it’s just a good challenge. This trip has been a good challenge for us, we just gotta get better. We gotta have some carryover going against Boston” on Tuesday.
Leonard said the team has made progress with its late-game execution but hasn’t gotten to the smooth, instinctive level it hopes to reach.
“Some teams come down in a flow and pace and know exactly what they’re doing. Those are the teams that usually win,” he said. “You’re not thinking, you’re just 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. Like I said, it’s one of those nights, you gotta give credit to the Bucks. They closed out the game, they played well.”
The Clippers, by their own measure, didn’t play well enough.
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