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Without Paul George, Clippers’ shot at last-second heroics goes terribly wrong

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic drives to the basket between Clippers forward Nicolas Batum and center Ivica Zubac.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, center, drives to the basket between Clippers forward Nicolas Batum, left, and center Ivica Zubac in the first half Sunday at Crypto.com Arena.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Life without Paul George is nothing new for the Clippers. The difference now is that it is lasting: At least three weeks of rest ahead before the torn ligament in his right elbow is re-evaluated, not counting the time needed, should he be medically cleared, to ramp up his conditioning for a return to the court.

In the interim, reinforcements are coming. But undoubtedly, so are more performances like Sunday’s 103-100 loss to Denver inside Crypto.com Arena, a game in which the Clippers flashed the requisite components they will need to survive until possibly February without their All-Star wing and leading scorer, while also revealing once again the slim margins they are dealing with because of a short-handed roster.

At times, by moving the ball to assist on 12 of their first 13 baskets, or fighting back from a 17-point second-half deficit to lead entering the fourth quarter, the Clippers showed a deep reserve of defense and energy, examples of why coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff that even missing three starters, “I still feel confident that we got a lot in this locker room and we can still get it done.”

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The Clippers signed guard Xavier Moon to a 10-day contract Sunday under the hardship exception.

But their dearth of scoring options without George — plus forward Marcus Morris Sr. and guard Reggie Jackson — also doomed them against the Nuggets, including a seven-minute span between field goals in the fourth quarter.

No one is feeling sorry for the Clippers, who fell to 17-16, on the Nuggets. Nearly half of Denver’s roster isn’t available but the Nuggets have stayed afloat because they have the one player who truly matters. Reigning most valuable player Nikola Jokic scored 26 points with 22 rebounds and eight assists and seemingly countered whatever intercepted passes he threw with brilliant reads for assists to teammates’ backdoor cuts.

Brandon Boston Jr. scored a team-high 18 points for the Clippers, but with them trailing by three with 12 seconds remaining, Denver foiled Lue’s drawn-up play to spring Luke Kennard for a potential game-tying three-pointer — “They guarded it pretty well,” reserve Amir Coffey said — and Boston dribbled in isolation until throwing up a misfired shot.

“I ain’t going to lie, shot some bulls—. But it’s a learning experience,” Boston said, “one of my first times actually in that position.”

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is challenged by Clippers guard Keon Johnson in the first half.
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, is challenged by Clippers guard Keon Johnson in the first half.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Clippers center Serge Ibaka, right, knocks the ball from Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic during the second half.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Lue could have other options soon.

After missing three games, Morris is on the verge of a return after testing out of the NBA’s health and safety protocols. And five days after entering the protocols, Jackson still has not felt any symptoms of COVID-19, Lue said.

Missing George poses the challenge of compensating for a bunch of things — “rebounding, shooting, passing, defense, playmaking, a little of everything,” as Lue said before tipoff. That slack has been easier to tighten defensively, the Clippers allowing 107.1 points per 100 possessions with George off the floor — a rating equivalent to the ninth best among all 30 teams.

Their offensive rating without George would be equivalent to the 24th-best offense. To survive without him, their offense no longer can afford to be heliocentric; it must be an equal-opportunity attack — not only in how many Clippers score, but also in how many ways those points are generated, from improving half-court efficiency to becoming even marginally better in transition, where they have struggled mightily all season.

Winning without George means receiving sizable contributions from Kennard, one of the hottest shooters in all of December — but who picked up five fouls in only 12 minutes, just the fourth time in his 278 career games that he finished with five or more fouls.

“We missed Luke’s points tonight,” Lue said.

It means finding points like Coffey’s layup with 3:20 to play in the third quarter, a basket made possible by a miss from Jokic and a defensive rebound by Ivica Zubac to trim what had been a 17-point Denver lead to just six. Coffey finished with nine points and nine rebounds and was a sparkplug off the bench. The Clippers assisted on 26 of their 40 baskets but shot just 30% from deep, with Denver making seven more three-pointers.

It means players getting hot from unexpected places, such as the three-pointer by Eric Bledsoe — a 30% shooter from deep this season — that tied the score at 79 with two minutes to play in the third, part of a 26-5 Clippers run over the final 7:45 of the third quarter to enter the fourth quarter leading by four. Bledsoe scored 18 with 10 assists.

It means bounce-back nights like that of Boston, who was shooting just 25% in his last six games since a 27-point breakout night on Dec. 8. It means frenzied defense, the likes that kept Denver from scoring for nearly seven minutes over the third and fourth quarters.

But it also will take better avoiding their own pitfalls. Without Jokic on the court, Denver produces at one of the NBA’s most anemic rates. Yet after leading by five when he went to the bench late in the first quarter, the Clippers trailed by 10 when he returned eight minutes later, the Nuggets’ patchwork bench obliterating a golden opportunity to seize control.

“That’s what hurt us,” Lue said.

So did what happened in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers went nearly seven minutes before scoring their next field goal.

“I was praying that it wasn’t going to get to a close game because they have a great closer,” Terance Mann said. “And we’re missing our best closer.”

Clippers star Paul George is expected to miss three to four weeks with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Up next for the Clippers: Monday vs. Brooklyn Nets

When: 7:30

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal, NBA TV; Radio: 570, 1330

Update: COVID protocols will sideline seven Nets including Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. Brooklyn (22-9) is coming off a Christmas victory against the Lakers that improved it to 12-3 on the road, the most road victories in the NBA.


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