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Reserves step up to help Clippers hold off Kings

Clippers guard Paul George is defended by Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes.
Clippers guard Paul George is defended by Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes during the first quarter in Sacramento on Wednesday.
(José Luis Villegas / Associated Press)

The number of healthy contributors available to play has always been among the most important statistics in the NBA — see: last season’s playoffs — but Wednesday in Sacramento underscored why it has become the dominant metric of the moment.

In a matchup that was remarkably no outlier as COVID-19 outbreaks sweep across the league, forcing postponements and dozens of emergency signings to pad out ravaged rosters, Sacramento was without seven players because of health and safety protocols and the Clippers were down four usual members of their rotation, with two in protocols, as well.

The latest absences belonged to starting guard Reggie Jackson (protocols) and guard Luke Kennard (hip), who had made 52% of his three-pointers in December.

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But two days removed from a double-digit loss that left the Clippers criticizing what one starter termed an “embarrassing” lack of urgency, the short-handed nature of their roster belied what they did have: the kind of energy and physicality that had been absent just days earlier.

The key to it all in a 105-89 victory that ended a three-game losing streak was a lineup of reserves, suddenly pressed into service, who had been together so rarely they could have used name tags.

A unit including rookie wing Keon Johnson — who joined the team only hours before tipoff, along with Jay Scrubb, to bolster a depleted backcourt — and little-used reserves center Serge Ibaka and forward Amir Coffey grew the Clippers’ lead in the first half, then stabilized a game that had gone sideways during the early minutes of the fourth quarter, after the Clippers’ 19-point lead had been sliced to six.

“Our young guys came in picked our defense up, was able to get in transition, attacked early, and they just gave us some energy,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

Reggie Jackson is the second Clippers player currently in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols . He has been ruled out of tonight’s game in Sacramento.

Starting in place of Jackson, Eric Bledsoe scored 19 points to go with a team-high eight rebounds and seven assists, and the Clippers outscored the Kings by 20 in his 36 minutes, his highest plus-minus this season. Lue challenged his guards to support the team’s big men with rebounding and the Kings grabbed only seven offensive rebounds, 16 fewer than San Antonio had.

“I think rebounding is all about effort, trying to get the ball,” Bledsoe said. “I just try to help the bigs out best I can ... come in and steal a couple.”

Behind 17 points from Ibaka and eight each from Brandon Boston Jr. and Coffey, the bench outscored Sacramento’s by 24, and Coffey’s eight fast-break points outscored Sacramento in transition (six) all by himself.

Paul George scored 17 points and passed Chauncey Billups for 18th on the all-time three-pointers list with a fourth-quarter triple.

Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe is fouled by Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton.
Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe is fouled by Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton during the second half in Sacramento on Wednesday.
(José Luis Villegas / Associated Press)

Johnson called it a “crazy day,” having woken up in Las Vegas expecting to play in the G League showcase.

“It was just a quick turnaround for me but mentally I knew I was prepared and just knew this was a chance for me to show what I’m capable of doing,” Johnson said.

As tipoff approached, Lue didn’t sense Monday’s result was still eating at his roster. Jackson’s entry into protocols and Kennard’s void had left them too much to worry about. He never questioned effort following Monday’s loss, but he did sense a difference verve about his team Wednesday.

“I thought it started with our defense,” he said.

The Clippers lose third straight game with a 116-92 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Monday at Staples Center.

The 38 points were the second fewest given up by the Clippers in a half this season, even though Dan Craig, the team’s associate head coach and the architect of its defense, missed his fifth consecutive game while recovering from knee surgery. A layup by Bledsoe six minutes into the third quarter extended their lead to 19.

The gap was not a product of superb shooting — they made 29% of their three-pointers, and teams that shoot worse than 30% from deep this season are now 50-216. Nor was it their communication, using their eighth different starting lineup in 11 games — their execution out of timeouts was “terrible,” Lue said.

This was about defensive physicality, with Buddy Hield missing his first nine shots, and a more focused intent.

The reserve lineup was back together to start what became critical minutes to begin fourth quarter after Sacramento awoke to trail by six after an 11-0 run.

Johnson’s no-look bounce pass had found a cutting Boston for a dunk, Ibaka had made a three-pointer and Coffey’s deflection had broken up a Kings transition opportunity with the Clippers hanging onto an eight-point lead with six minutes to play.

By the time George checked back in with six minutes to play, and Ibaka dunked on the first possession, the Clippers led by 10 and their 29 fast-break points set a season high.

Greif covered the game remotely from Los Angeles.


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