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Short-handed Clippers close historic 2021 with a loss in Toronto

Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) attempts a layup against Raptors center Khem Birch.
Clippers guard Terance Mann attempts a layup against Raptors center Khem Birch during the first half Friday night in Toronto.
(Chris Katsarov / Canadian Press )

The annals will show 2021 as the year the Clippers added heft to the franchise’s otherwise light history, authoring new chapters whose storylines will remain vivid in the years to come.

It was when they followed a collapse with grit and little quit; received Kawhi Leonard’s Game 6 in Dallas, then mourned his season-ending knee injury in Los Angeles; watched as a weight lifted from Paul George’s shoulders following Game 5 in Salt Lake City; and celebrated after Terance Mann’s 39 points one game later. They became the first team to win consecutive playoff series trailing 0-2. By exorcising postseason demons, they appeared in their first conference final.

Appropriate, then, that the unprecedented continued right up until the calendar’s last day.

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Hours before Friday’s tipoff in Toronto, where the Clippers eventually lost 116-108, Tyronn Lue became the 10th NBA coach this season to enter the league’s COVID-related protocols. The absence further whittled down a staff that for three weeks had already been operating without associate head coach Dan Craig, because of knee surgery, at a time when Lue’s gifts of adjusting on the fly had become even more important.

The Clippers intend to sign Wenyen Gabriel to a 10-day hardship contract, a person with knowledge of the situation told The Times.

And that was to say nothing of their eight unavailable players, four because of their own protocol stays. Ivica Zubac was the latest Thursday, leaving the Clippers just one center and prompting the signing of 6-foot-9 Wenyen Gabriel to a 10-day contract. Gabriel arrived Friday after playing the previous night in Brooklyn with the Nets.

The constant compensation for missing pieces would have felt strange if it hadn’t felt so familiar.

“Everybody was kind of surprised, but at the same time not surprised,” acting coach Brian Shaw said, adding Lue was feeling fine. “You just never know with this virus and this situation what’s going to happen.”

When Shaw added that “I don’t think anything is weird anymore” before tipoff, he was referencing playing in front of only a handful of fans because of a new Ontario province rule seeking to curb COVID-19 transmission. In truth, the sentiment covered the past month for the Clippers and their year’s topsy-turvy final game.

In his first game since Dec. 20, and exiting COVID protocols, Reggie Jackson replaced Eric Bledsoe at starting point guard and scored 17 points, with Marcus Morris Sr. adding 20 and Mann 18. The Clippers fell to 18-18 despite making 15 of their 34 three-pointers because the Raptors had 15 more offensive rebounds — “our Achilles’ heel,” Shaw said — 18 more second-chance points and 18 more shot attempts.

“At some point you just got to buckle down and get a rebound,” said Amir Coffey, who finished with 15 points, but grabbed just one board himself.

Huffing and puffing for breath in his return Jackson, who played 31 minutes, watched Toronto sprint ahead by 15 only halfway through the first quarter after scoring 18 unanswered points. Then Jackson’s four three-pointers, Coffey’s 11 points off the bench and Justise Winslow’s blocks on consecutive possessions all in the first half sparked a comeback to outscore Toronto by 21 over its last 18 minutes and grab a six-point halftime lead.

Center Serge Ibaka received a tribute video in his first game in Toronto since signing with the Clippers as a free agent in November 2020, and finished with seven minutes and seven rebounds but played only 18 minutes as the Clippers played small.

Like his players’ growing familiarity playing short-handed, the Clippers’ case Friday was helped in that Shaw has been here before. A NBA assistant since 2005 and former head coach in Denver, Shaw was a head coach as recently as last spring, when he led the G League Ignite. Jackson praised Shaw for keeping the game plan simple and rooted in Lue’s foundational principles.

“One thing about this team is, regardless of who’s been out there on the floor, we’ve played hard and we’ve competed,” Shaw said.

But scrap could not keep pace with shots.

Tied at 105 with 2:27 to play, the Raptors scored 11 of the game’s final 14 points.

The wave of COVID-19 problems that recently impacted Clippers players has landed coach Tyronn Lue in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, too.

Pascal Siakam, who had played once since Dec. 14, scored 25. Fred VanVleet, playing for the first time since Dec. 18, scored a layup to push Toronto’s lead to three with 62 seconds to play, then drilled a three-pointer with 25 seconds left for a six-point cushion. He finished with 31 points, sending the Clippers off to a late-night flight to Brooklyn, where their first game of 2022 comes on its first day.

Shaw said he could not recall a time in his 34 years in the NBA that his team had played on both Dec. 31 and Jan. 1. The Clippers last did it 16 years ago.

“It’s going to be an interesting year,” Jackson said, “and we all have to embrace it.”

Up next for the Clippers: Saturday at Brooklyn

When: 4:30 p.m. PST

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

Update: The Clippers will face Brooklyn in the second game on back-to-back nights for the second time in a week but this time the Nets will have Kevin Durant available, after he cleared health and safety protocols.

Andrew Greif reported from Boston.


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