Clippers stage late comeback to beat Thunder, snap losing streak

Clippers' Isaiah Hartenstein blocks the shot of Oklahoma City Thunder's Darius Bazley.
Clippers’ Isaiah Hartenstein blocks the shot of Oklahoma City Thunder’s Darius Bazley in the first quarter at Staples Center on Monday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Coaches and players love calling the NBA a make-or-miss league.

This season, but especially for the Clippers, it has been a miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss, miss league.

Last season’s most accurate team from deep, the Clippers entered Monday shooting an ice-cold 31% on three-pointers, a confounding start for some within the organization even amid a season in which offensive numbers are depressed across the NBA after years of increases in efficiency. But the Clippers’ nadir may have come in the first half against Oklahoma City at Staples Center — 14 consecutive missed three-pointers.

Not even Paul George, the lone engine of this offense so far thanks to two 40-point games, was immune. Against a rebuilding Thunder team owning the NBA’s third-worst defensive rating, and more future draft picks than expected victories this season, the star forward missed nine of his first 10 shots.


It would not define his night amid a 99-94 comeback victory — just as the Clippers believe their early struggles are not the beginning of a larger trend.

Beginning with 2 minutes 35 seconds to play and the Clippers down six, George made two three-pointers, got a hand on a layup to stop red-hot Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, almost lost his dribble in traffic before finding teammate Luke Kennard for a cross-court assist leading to a three-pointer, and hit a twisting jump shot from 10 feet to give the Clippers a 93-92 lead with 68 seconds to play.

George wasn’t done. He stole the next pass and grabbed the next defensive rebound to cap a finale that was equally as furious as the first quarter had been frustrating.

George finished with 32 points and nine rebounds and — including his seven assists that led to 19 points — accounted for 51% of his team’s offense at a time when the Clippers (2-4) badly needed any and every point they could muster.

The Clippers have yet to find a consistent scorer besides Paul George and as a result they are off to a 1-4 start.

Oct. 31, 2021

“That’s my job,” George said.

“He’s been holding us afloat,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “Nothing short of magnificent.”

Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 28 points for the Thunder (1-6).

“We find a way to win,” Clippers forward Nicolas Batum said. “We find a way and that’s what I like about this team. You know that was a tough week but down seven with three minutes, let’s go guys, let’s go find a way to win this game. Forget about what happened the previous 20 quarters.”

Coach Tyronn Lue has maintained that his biggest challenge is to see which lineup combinations complement one another best.

Yet none will be particularly effective at keeping the Clippers in the Western Conference’s playoff race if they cannot make baskets, particularly while they wait for center Serge Ibaka and forward Marcus Morris Sr. to return from injuries.

Particularly frustrating to Lue is that the shots taken by his team have, by and large, been quality looks. At one point Jackson joked with Lue that someone needed to change the rims.

Clippers' Paul George steals the ball away from Oklahoma City Thunder's Amir Coffey.
Clippers’ Paul George steals the ball away from Oklahoma City Thunder’s Amir Coffey late in the fourth quarter at the Staples Center Monday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“We’re getting seven more open shots a game than we did last year, so the shots are there, we just have to step up and make them,” Lue said before tipoff. “If we’re not, we’ve got to be confident to take them, anyway. If you’re two for four, two for five or two for 20, if it’s your shot you’ve got to step up and take it or you’re probably going to get a worse shot.”

The Clippers are not alone in their frustrations. Entering Monday, the NBA’s overall 34% accuracy on three-pointers stood as its lowest average since the 1998-99 season.

“The short offseasons are real; these seasons are long and they’re a grind, mentally and physically,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “So the short offseasons, I think, play a part — has a cumulative effect over time ... especially with the teams that have made deep playoff runs.”

The Clippers’ offensive struggles in scoring only 14 first-quarter points appeared to lead Lue to abandon a planned change to his substitution patterns.

A six-minute scoring drought in Friday’s loss to Portland highlighted the Clippers’ issues generating offense with George off the floor, a result Batum called “unacceptable” from the team’s supporting cast. Lue said he intended to play George in three shorter bursts rather than one long stretch to begin each half and another to end it, separated by a typical, seven-minute rest in between.

Paul George had 42 points, but the other Clippers struggled offensively in a 111-92 loss to the host Portland Trail Blazers that dropped L.A. to 1-4.

Oct. 29, 2021

Instead, with the Clippers already trailing by eight in the first quarter’s final minute, George checked back in and played the rest of the half. That they trailed by just four at halftime owed to Oklahoma City’s own 22% three-point shooting.

There was relief in the third quarter when the Clippers made three consecutive three-pointers, including two by Kennard, and he and Batum followed with three-pointers on consecutive possessions with nine minutes to play in the fourth quarter to trim the Clippers’ deficit from 15 to two. When George followed with a layup, their run was 11-2 and they stayed within two points. The Clippers made 12 of 21 three-pointers after halftime.

As the Clippers were finding their shot, so was Gilgeous-Alexander, the former Clipper dealt to Oklahoma City in 2019 in the trade that returned George. Gilgeous-Alexander made three step-back three-pointers in the third quarter and, after the last, pirouetted toward one section of the lower bowl and smiled.

The Clippers responded with two-man blitzes to force the ball from his hands.

“He doesn’t overreact to anything, success or adversity,” Daigneault said. “Which are admirable qualities for any competitor, and certainly pretty unique for a 23-year-old.”