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Column: Clippers focus on who they have rather than who’s missing, and gain dramatic victory

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson makes the game-winning shot over Orlando center Wendell Carter Jr. on Dec. 11, 2021.
Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, who scored 25 points, makes the winning shot over Orlando Magic center Wendell Carter Jr. with 2.2 seconds left Saturday afternoon.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

When Kawhi Leonard underwent knee surgery in July that’s likely to keep him out most — if not all — of this season, the Clippers could have let their story turn into a sad and self-pitying tale about the limitations they constantly face because of who’s out of their lineup.

Instead, they’re actively shaping their fate, driven by an ever-changing cast that’s determined to make the best of who is in the lineup and not lament who’s missing.

With Paul George missing a second consecutive game because of an injured right elbow and Nicolas Batum’s return from a bout with COVID-19 curtailed after one game because of a sprained right ankle, the Clippers’ depth and resourcefulness were challenged again Saturday against the Orlando Magic.

Reggie Jackson rescued the Clippers by hitting a 20-foot jumper with 2.2 seconds to play to lift them past the tenacious Magic 106-104, but they wouldn’t have been in position to win without the contributions of Luke Kennard and Terance Mann, who became starters in coach Tyronn Lue’s reconfigured lineup.

Kennard hit a career-best seven three-point shots and tied his season best with 23 points, while Mann had 16 points (including four-for-four shooting from three-point range) in 35-plus minutes. Rarely used Justise Winslow had an energizing nine points in 15-plus minutes as the Clippers (15-12) won their third game in a row and fourth in their last five.

The Clippers' Luke Kennard, left, celebrates a three-pointer with Terance Mann during the second half Dec. 11, 2021.
The Clippers’ Luke Kennard, left, and Terance Mann played big roles in the victory. Kennard had 23 points and Mann 16.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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Lue’s only criticism — expressed with a smile — was that Kennard turned down too many shots. Kennard was eight for 16, including seven for 11 from three, and was aggressive when the Clippers needed him to be.

“This feels really good, just knowing that we have a solid team without our two best players, and we’re beating teams with their best players on the court, without ours,” Mann said. “It’s a good feeling but it’s not easy.”

It doesn’t always work out as well as it did against the Magic, who played better than their 5-22 record suggests. Orlando led 30-23 after the first quarter, but the Clippers surged ahead 49-44 at the half. The Magic, powered by 23 points from Cole Anthony, 22 off the bench from Terrence Ross and 20 from Franz Wagner, had a 68-63 lead with 4:27 left in the third quarter before Mann and Eric Bledsoe hit three-point shots and provided the energy for the Clippers to surge ahead 78-75 after three.

Reggie Jackson’s step-back jumper with 2.2 seconds left lifted the Clippers to a 106-104 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday at Staples Center.

Kennard and Winslow carried the Clippers early in the fourth quarter, but Orlando led 94-93 with 3:45 to play. Lue called a timeout, and the Clippers let Jackson know how much they needed him to take over.

“I was just like, ‘Go win us a game. You’ve done this before. This is what you do. Go win us a game,’” Kennard said. “He was like, ‘I got you.’”

Jackson scored the Clippers’ next seven points, putting them up 100-96. After Anthony hit two free throws, Kennard took a pass from Jackson and hit a 27-foot shot to extend the lead to 103-98. Ivica Zubac’s ill-advised foul while Ross was launching a three-point shot helped Ross cut the deficit to 103-101. Zubac, fouled by Anthony, hit only one of two free throws, and Anthony tied it at 104 with a 28-foot, pull-up jumper with 23.6 seconds left.

There was little question who would take the last shot for the Clippers. Jackson, who’d been in a shooting slump, finished with 25 points on 11 for 21 from the field.

“We put the ball in his hands right at the end there and he made a play for us and won us a game,” Kennard said. “That’s Reggie. He’s a great player, great teammate. Like I said, that’s what he does, and he’s done that before for us, as well.”

After Jackson hit the shot, triggering roars from the announced crowd of 17,156 at the soon-to-be-renamed Staples Center, Ross missed a potential game-winner from 24 feet. That allowed the Clippers to get a win without two key players and despite being further limited by minute restrictions on Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr.

“Team-wise it was a good win for us,” Lue said.

Reggie Jackson is struggling through a shooting slump, but the Clippers guard has trust in himself and coach Tyronn Lue to get things back on track.

Put the emphasis on “team,” because even when George returns, the Clippers will need a group effort to stay in the top six in the West and avoid the hazards the play-in round involving the teams that finish seventh through 10th. They’ll probably have to mix their lineups more than Lue would like, which means stability will be elusive and some players will be pushed out of their comfort zones.

But when players respond as well as Mann, Kennard and Winslow did Saturday, they create an emotional lift that makes the absences of Leonard and George easier to bear.

“It’s not easy, especially if you’ve never done it before, but we’ve got a group of guys who can do it, and they’re excited about doing it,” Mann said. “And I think we’ve built a culture here where people know that they’re going to have to play different positions, and night in, night out you never know what’s going to happen, just because we’ve got so many moving pieces and injuries and stuff. People are prepared for that going into games, so that’s their mentality.”


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