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Paul George-less Clippers let game slip away to Wizards

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal goes to the basket against Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.
Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal goes to the basket against Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the first half Thursday in Washington.
(Nick Wass / Associated Press)

For a moment Thursday, it looked as though the Clippers were about to make moot any more handwringing over their crunch-time efficiency.

Coming off of two losses in which their offense stalled in the fourth quarter’s final minutes, the Clippers were not leaving a matchup Thursday at Washington to chance. Despite foul trouble that trimmed Kawhi Leonard’s typical first-half usage by three minutes, dizziness that sidelined Paul George right before tipoff, a concussion that made hot-shooting Marcus Morris unavailable and a hail of turnovers, the Clippers led by a comfortable 16 points with 78 seconds left in the first half.

Instead of cruising into the NBA’s All-Star break by salvaging the final night of a difficult trip with a victory, however, they stumbled to a 119-117 loss to the Wizards when they couldn’t close yet again — this time, in either half.

“Losing a tough one like this,” guard Luke Kennard said, “it’s going to eat at you for a few days.”

After falling behind by 16, the Wizards closed the half on a 9-0 run that was part of a larger 21-2 run that lasted nearly five minutes, stretching into the third quarter, leading to a back-and-forth second half.

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Buoyed by reserves who scored 57 points, the Clippers led 106-102 with 4 minutes, 23 seconds to play — only to cede an 11-0 run over the next three minutes.

LeBron James made Giannis Antetokounmpo the first selection in the All-Star game draft, while Kevin Durant chose Nets teammate Kyrie Irving second.

A three-pointer by Leonard cut their deficit to one point with 14 seconds left, and after free throws by Washington’s Bradley Beal and Clippers center Ivica Zubac drew the Clippers within one point with seven seconds left, Wizards forward Rui Hachimura stepped to the free-throw line.

He made the first. After the second bounced off the rim’s left side, Wizards guard Russell Westbrook rushed in unchecked from the three-point line and tipped the rebound away from center Ivica Zubac, who had blocked out his own man, into the hands of Beal, who dribbled out the clock.

It’s the first time this season the Clippers have lost three straight, with each featuring the strikingly similar finish of seeing a hard-won lead disappear. In their last three fourth quarters, the Clippers have now shot 28%, 36% and 35%. Though unlike against Milwaukee on Sunday, when the Clippers failed to score during the final four minutes, and Boston on Tuesday, when they scored one field goal in the final 2:43, the Clippers’ late-game offense found “good shots down the stretch” against the Wizards, coach Tyronn Lue said, which led to five three-pointers in the fourth quarter.

“We made shots, we got some good looks at it, but we wasn’t able to get no stops,” Leonard said. “We just got to keep being consistent like this in knowing what we’re gonna do in the fourth quarter.”

Beal scored 33 points to lead the Wizards (14-20) and Westbrook added 27.

Leonard scored 22 points, Patrick Beverley added 17 and Lou Williams had 16 for the Clippers (24-14), who fell to fourth in the Western Conference after 19 turnovers on 102 possessions, tying a season high. Washington converted them into 27 points.

“You just can’t do that,” Lue said. “The margin for error is so slim when you are missing two key guys.”

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Considering the dearth of shooting without George and Morris, the reemergence of Kennard couldn’t have come at a more necessary time. Leapfrogged in the nine-man rotation by Terance Mann in the last three weeks, Kennard scored 14 points, his highest output since Jan. 17, threw a no-look assist to Zubac for a dunk and played with the type of aggression the team has pleaded to see from him since this season’s start.

“I thought we did a good job of competing,” Lue said. “Other guys stepped up. Luke played well tonight. I thought Terance Mann made a couple of big threes. And we got to put it behind us.”

Just as Leonard had warmed up Tuesday in Boston before being ruled out minutes before tipoff because of back spasms, George warmed up inside Capital One Arena but, after experiencing what the team described as dizziness, was ruled a late scratch. It was unclear late Thursday whether, in light of their injuries this week, either Leonard or George still planned to take part in Sunday’s All-Star game in Atlanta.

George’s absence in Washington left him unable to implement the late-game fixes he, Leonard and Lue had discussed during an hour-long meeting Wednesday in which the trio discussed “different scenarios and situations, what they like, what they didn’t like, good shot, bad shot, and just where they want the ball on the floor, and the spacing,” Lue said.

“We’re working,” Lue had said before tipoff, hinting at the team’s relative lack of clutch-time minutes this season. That work continues.

Three takeaways from the Clippers

  1. The Clippers still lead the NBA in three-point accuracy, but the distance shooting is no longer insulating them from their mistakes. Since starting 20-2 when making more three-pointers than their opponents, the Clippers are 1-4 in their last five games.
  2. Playing his first minutes in a first half since Feb. 23, and given the amount of prodding the Clippers have given him to play aggressively, it wasn’t all that surprising to see Luke Kennard shoot four times in his first four minutes. But it was notable that he didn’t force his shots, which came either within the offense or in rhythm. He finished a team-high plus-23.
  3. With 13 points and 13 rebounds, center Ivica Zubac has seven double-doubles off the bench this season, tied for the NBA lead.

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