Clippers five takeaways: Big men are huge in preseason opener win over Nuggets

Isaiah Hartenstein drives against Denver's Aaron Gordon.
Clippers center Isaiah Hartenstein drives against Denver forward Aaron Gordon during a preseason game Monday at Staples Center.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Clippers basketball returned Monday at Staples Center, and in some ways it felt like no time had passed since last season ended in June’s conference final.

Point guard Reggie Jackson picked up where he left off, making his first three shots. Terance Mann was clutch off the bench, with 12 of his team-high 14 points scored in the final six minutes. And a late rally — the hallmark of so many victories last winter, spring and summer — that saw the Clippers outscore Denver by nine in the fourth quarter helped them overcome a 10-point hole to edge the Nuggets, 103-102.

Five takeaways from a preseason opener that went down to the final possession:

1. Monday’s most significant news involved a player not in uniform. After his recovery from back surgery in June limited him to non-contact drills during training camp, center Serge Ibaka was cleared for contact, coach Tyronn Lue said.

He then tempered expectations.

“We’re gonna ease him in as slow as possible and make sure he’s healthy,” Lue said. “That’s a good sign for us, he’s able to get back on track and take some contact.”


2. Rookie wing Brandon Boston Jr., by all accounts, impressed during training camp with his shooting and confidence. Being timid isn’t part of his game. Lue described him as a player who learns quickly and wants to work. There isn’t any doubt about what he does best.

“We know he can score,” Lue said.

Justise Winslow would like nothing more than to prove he has overcome the past injuries and setbacks that have hindered his development at the NBA level.

Oct. 4, 2021

Boston finished with 10 points. But what Lue wanted to see Monday is how he would play off of the ball and his effort defensively. He drew three fouls within his first seven minutes. His fourth was committed away from the ball and he had five fouls entering the fourth quarter. Boston was resolute.

“I just told my team I’m not going to foul out,” he said.

Boston’s length will give him a chance this season. Late in the fourth quarter, as the Clippers were cutting Denver’s lead to 98-96, Boston tangled with bulky post Petr Cornelie in the post and denied an entry pass along the low block. When he found himself isolated against guard Markus Howard in the waning seconds, the Clippers clinging to their one-point lead, he induced a long shot over his long arms, making a game-saving stop.

“We know Brandon can foul,” Lue joked. “No, but he competes though, he plays hard and he tries, so that’s all you can ask. We just continue to work on technique with him, fundamental things of playing defense. But he gives you the effort every single night. You can live with that.”

3. Backup center Isaiah Hartenstein left a strong impression during training camp with his passing. Lue has said the offense will play through its big men more often, so that’s no small factor as Hartenstein competes with Harry Giles for the 15th and final roster spot. Hartenstein did little to dispel the positive reviews of his passing against Denver. Within moments of checking in, his pass over the top of the defense found Mann for an assist at the rim. In the third quarter, he saw Luke Kennard on a backdoor cut and delivered a two-handed assist with speed.

But, as with Boston, the benchmark Lue said he was judging Hartenstein and Giles by their defense.

Clippers third-year guard Terance Mann proved invaluable during the playoffs last season. Now he has an improved shot and coach Tyronn Lue’s trust.

Sept. 30, 2021

“That’s my whole thing: rebounding and defense,” Giles said. “I think that is what going to separate me. I know the scoring will come.”


Hartenstein was the most vocal Clipper on the floor defensively at times, even directing Mann where to stand at one point, but evaluated himself as needing to improve in pick-and-roll coverage. Giles, to his credit, drew a charge on Bol Bol and grabbed 12 rebounds.

Because of Denver’s matchups, which led Hartenstein and Giles to guard forwards JaMychal Green and Jeff Green at times, Lue called it a “tough game for our bigs actually to try to judge those two guys defensively, so we’ll look at the tape.”

Knowing that both backup centers have nonguaranteed contracts and only a matter of weeks to leave an impression was “a little weird” at first, Giles said.

“As we went on, you compete, you practice and you seeing one another go hard, that is still a respect thing,” Giles added. “And you still have to apply it to a regular team, you’re still teammates but you are always competing, just using the approach of being on the same floor and having to compete for minutes with anybody whether the contract is guaranteed or not.

“It’s still a job, got to do what we got to do. We can still support each other in both of our games and compete, especially since we got the same jersey.”

Clippers executives hope the mix of new and veteran players will allow the team to extend its championship window several years.

Sept. 30, 2021

4. The other big man little discussed before Monday was Moses Wright, who finished with eight points in 17 minutes, including a spin move that led to a vicious dunk over Bol Bol. With the exception of his two missed free throws in the final seconds, which allowed Denver one last possession to steal the win, the 6-foot-8 rookie and fellow rookie George King (12 points) impressed with their ability to step in and immediately contribute.

“George seems like a veteran, you know, I don’t know how old he is,” Lue said. “But he comes in the gym every morning. He’s there at seven o’clock, working on his game, working on his body. He’s one of the guys I have to kick off the floor every day because he’s always working. You love to see that from a young guy. He has a dog in him. Picking up full court, like step on the floor and pick up Monte Morris full court at the point guard slot. And just how to compete defensively, I mean, just says a lot about him.

“And, you know, with Moses, I just think his athletic ability. His ability to make shots, his ability to block shot at the rim. He’s able to finish around the basket. He really gave us a huge momentum boost when he came in the game. I saw Bol Bol block his shot the first time, after that he attacked with some authority on the finish to the rim. He did a great job as well.”

5. Clippers starters are expected to get more time in Wednesday’s home game against Sacramento, but what was seen from one who took part Monday aligned with preseason goals.

Two months after being acquired in a trade with Memphis in hopes his paint drives will create opportunities for an offense that rarely got to the rim last season, Eric Bledsoe dribbled into the paint without much effort on several first-quarter possessions and forced extra defenders to commit to him, which in turn created passing lanes for open shots. Bledsoe, in his first game of his second go-round with the franchise that drafted him, finished with four points and three assists in 10 minutes.