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Injury-hobbled Clippers can’t hold back Magic in streak-dissolving loss

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard drives around Orlando's Mo Bamba.
Clippers star Kawhi Leonard drives around Orlando’s Mo Bamba during the second half of the Clippers’ 103-96 loss Tuesday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

While Orlando was producing as many airballs as three-pointers (three), and the Clippers’ lead reached 16, Steve Ballmer watched Tuesday’s first half from a seat five rows up from Staples Center’s midcourt, appearing as relaxed as the team’s animated owner can be.

By the start of the fourth quarter, his location had changed to a baseline seat. He watched, hunched over, as the relative serenity of the first half disappeared into an outcome few could have predicted.

Playing for the fifth time in seven days and missing five players, including four starters, the Clippers saw their hold slowly erode over the course of a second half to forget en route to a 103-96 loss that snapped their six-game winning streak.

What had appeared so easy to begin the first quarter, as the Clippers (32-17) scored the first 10 points, became brutally difficult by the end as the effects of fatigue showed with intercepted passes, clanked three-pointers and missed boxouts. Los Angeles scored just 45 points after halftime and shot 32% on three-pointers, its worst since March17.

Even still, coach Tyronn Lue didn’t accept attrition as the deciding factor. After allowing just 37 points at halftime, the team’s fewest in more than a calendar year, the Clippers allowed Orlando to score 33 points in each of the final two quarters. A Magic (16-31) team that also played without five players less than a week removed from tearing the roster down to the studs at the NBA’s trade deadline.

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Highlights from the Clippers’ 103-96 loss to the Orlando Magic on Tuesday.

“First half, I thought we should have been up at least 25, 26,” Lue said. What followed, he said, were bad decisions and “stupid shots.”

Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 28 points, the only player in the game to score more than 20.

The Clippers were without Paul George (right foot soreness), and Marcus Morris was a late scratch because of a bruise in his right calf. Patrick Beverley (right knee) and Serge Ibaka (lower back) continued their injury recovery that has now reached two weeks, and Rajon Rondo (adductor) has yet to debut too.

Five takeaways from the Clippers’ loss

1. While the Clippers have rolled, the question of health looms over their run. The back injury that cost Ibaka his ninth consecutive game and the foot injury that sidelined George a second straight, appear most worrisome.

George’s injury is in the same foot as the bone edema that previously sidelined him for seven games in February. Lue wouldn’t confirm whether this latest injury, which has been called soreness, is related to the bone edema when asked before tipoff.

Ibaka, meanwhile, has yet to be able to take part in on-court workouts, Lue said. The coach did suggest there has been progress, however, when he said Rondo and Beverley, who has not played in 10 games, were able to get on the court for workouts Tuesday.

2. When Ibaka and Beverley, both starters before their injuries, do return after their long layoffs, will Lue re-integrate them into the rotation slowly off the bench, or as starters with capped minutes?

“A lot of thought has went into it, a lot of sleepless nights just thinking about rotations when guys get healthy,” Lue said. “And [I] really don’t know right now. All I know is we can put the guys on the floor that’s healthy right now and when those guys get healthy and then we just got to see what happens.”

Ivica Zubac , last season’s starting center, doesn’t offer Ibaka’s floor spacing but has remained a strong defensive force. Since he moved into the starting lineup nine games ago, opponents are shooting 42% against shots he defends, a slight improvement over his season average.

3. The Clippers built their six-game winning streak by grabbing a league-leading 78% of defensive rebounds, and yet it was their inability to finish off defensive stops with rebounds Tuesday that led them to trouble during the third quarter. Orlando scored eight second-chance points in the quarter to help trim its 14-point halftime deficit to three entering the final quarter.

Nicolas Batum remembers when the Clippers shifted their momentum, coming back from 22 points down to beat Charlotte. ‘Something was born that night.’

With Ibaka watching from the sideline, the Clippers’ lack of a third, playable big man to spell Zubac hurt them en route to allowing 15 offensive rebounds, which tied for their most since Feb. 17. At one point, after 7-foot Magic center Mo Bamba dunked after grabbing an offensive board, Luke Kennard looked pleadingly to his teammates around the perimeter to help crash the glass.

One day after a focused defensive effort allowed only 38 paint points to Milwaukee, the Clippers allowed 50 to the Magic.

4. Defensive rebounding wasn’t the only area that turned from a strength during the streak to a liability.

With 17 turnovers, their most since March 4, this was as careless as the Clippers have played in weeks. That included four turnovers by Nicolas Batum, who threw the ball away with 58 seconds left and his team trailing by just two.
“We’ve got to make better passes whether we’re tired or not,” Lue said. “But yeah, I thought our guys got tired and got worn down, to be honest. I’m usually not a guy with a lot of excuses but I did think playing eight guys on a back to back, against a team that’s going to keep coming, put a lot of pressure on us.”

5. There’s no rest for the weary: The Clippers next face Denver, which is 3-0 since adding Aaron Gordon from Orlando at the trade deadline.


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