Clippers fall to Knicks, are left to lament RJ Barrett’s easy drives
The Clippers’ scouting report on RJ Barrett was abundantly clear. Do not let the left-handed guard operate with his preferred hand.
Instead, coach Tyronn Lue watched as Barrett, time and again, went left Sunday inside Madison Square Garden. And when he did, it made this game go sideways for the Clippers.
Barrett scored 28 points, to go with 14 rebounds and six assists, and his last four baskets all stemmed from unimpeded left-handed drives. It was capped by his drive around a screen until he got to the rim with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Barrett lofted a left-handed floater while also hitting his defender, Reggie Jackson, hard enough for Jackson to momentarily crumple. Jackson was called for a foul, and Barrett made the free throw to complete a three-point play. The Knicks’ lead was 13.
The Clippers’ Marcus Morris Sr. made 2 critical three-pointers during a 24-point comeback over the 76ers while dealing with childhood friend’s death.
The play didn’t extinguish the Clippers’ attempt to engineer a second consecutive escape out of a straitjacket of their own making. But unlike their 24-point comeback Friday in Philadelphia, the Clippers could not come all the way back. Instead they came back to earth, handed a 110-102 loss behind miscues at the free-throw line and on the glass, the Knicks’ 15 offensive rebounds leading to 21 second-chance points, marks that were significantly better than the Clippers’ six and 10, respectively.
“We did a bad job on RJ Barrett,” Lue said. “We talked about coming into the game that we got to keep him off his left hand. He’s too good going to his left. And he got there time and time again.”
Jackson had 26 points to lead the Clippers (23-25), and Luke Kennard (14 points) and Brandon Boston Jr. (13) each scored in double figures off the bench. Playing one day after attending a funeral in Philadelphia for a childhood friend killed in a shooting, amid a stretch in which he acknowledged he had slept little because of the death, Marcus Morris Sr. missed all nine of his field-goal tries and finished with four points.
Playing catch-up quickly became a math problem. Not only did the Knicks (23-24) attempt 12 more field goals than the Clippers, thanks to that edge in offensive rebounds, but the Clippers missed 10 of their 30 free-throw tries. Last season, when the Clippers set an NBA record for free-throw accuracy, they made less than 70% of their foul shots in only five games. This season, that has happened already 11 times.
New York made seven of its first eight three-point attempts, and the Clippers, who have stayed afloat behind their defense despite massive roster attrition, regretted afterward how easily the Knicks were allowed to operate, an issue capitalized upon by Barrett and others.
“We came in with the right intentions but kind of gave easy workout shots, rhythm shots,” Jackson said. “I think good intent by people trying to help but overhelping, not being in position to get back to your own, so once they found that rhythm, it made it hard.”
For 3½ minutes late in the second quarter, the Clippers finally made it hard on the Knicks, scoring 11 unanswered points. It was a byproduct of their defense, with Lue unleashing forward Nicolas Batum to blitz Julius Randle when he caught the ball. His double teams led to deflections and quick passes that, for one of the only stretches of the afternoon, forced New York to work for its offense.
For Batum, it was a reprisal of the role in which, over the last two weeks, he flustered centers Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid with his long arms and 14 seasons’ worth of defensive intelligence. On Sunday, he took two charges — one 94 feet away from the basket off an inbounds pass.
“He loves to take that challenge, and when he’s guarding those guys, he makes those guys work,” Lue said.
The Clippers, who have been outscored by a league-worst 7.9 points in the second quarter this month, won that quarter by three points by shooting 15 percentage points above their monthly average in second quarters. But ominous indicators lurked in the box score even amid that push to trail by just five at halftime, starting with the offensive rebounds. The Knicks are among the best at punishing opponents there, and it played out again. For the game, New York won the rebounding competition by 12.
A boisterous Reggie Jackson led seven Clippers in double-figure scoring with 19 points in a 102-101 comeback win over Philadelphia and Joel Embiid.
“We got hit from the start. Gotta be a team that hits first, that brings the energy,” said Ivica Zubac, who recorded his third consecutive double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds. “That’s it.”
With the Clippers trailing by only seven with 5:30 left to play, Barrett grabbed an offensive rebound, then assisted a layup by Randle. On the Knicks’ next possession, after a turnover by Jackson, Barrett assisted on a three-pointer. The lead was back to 12, and the actors who dotted the arena’s “celebrity row” cutaways on the video board stood to applaud a game between two teams that have struggled to find consistency.
It has been one month since Paul George last took the court for the Clippers because of his injured elbow ligament, and they are 6-10, with the NBA’s seventh-worst plus-minus, in that span. Lue has partly gauged progress in that time by examining the quality of the shots his team is taking and how many times the Clippers’ passes change sides of the court to force defenders to move.
“Just seeing if we are playing the right way, we continue to build good habits on both sides of the basketball,” he said. “That’s the most important thing.”
But one of the most important things Sunday was not allowing Barrett to go left. When he did, the Clippers left, taking the long walk down Madison Square Garden’s ramp without the rally that once felt within their grasp.
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