Clippers’ strong second half leads to blowout of Rockets
There was no need for Tyronn Lue to draw up a play on the grease board with four minutes remaining with his team leading one of the NBA’s worst by 18, and so the Clippers coach spent a fourth-quarter timeout joking with forward Robert Covington before throwing an arm around assistant Jeremy Castleberry and laughing.
This blowout of the Houston Rockets, which ended 113-100, had been in hand since a dominant third quarter sucked any suspense out of the teams’ second matchup in three days.
It was why the most compelling question afterward was not so much how they had routed a team with a 15-46 record in what otherwise might have appeared to be a low-stakes matchup.
Instead, the nagging wonder is was what these Clippers, after wins in six of their last seven games, might be able to do when the postseason begins in six weeks, regardless of their seed — particularly if their roster can look anything close to full strength. Though there has been no clear answer whether Paul George (elbow), Norman Powell (toe) and Kawhi Leonard (knee) can still return, there has also been no public ruling out of any of the wings, either.
“A lot of people wrote us off the map once they figured out who was hurt and who was injured and they really don’t know what we got and that says a lot for our group,” said Terance Mann, who scored 11 points, with seven rebounds and five assists, and called himself fine despite suffering a thigh contusion. “We’ve got a lot of guys who work hard and work on their game and is ready when their name’s called.”
The Clippers defeated the Lakers on Friday to earn the season series tiebreaker because of clutch late-game play. They’re among the league leaders too.
With 18 games left, the Clippers (33-31) are using each remaining matchup as a lab to fine-tune their postseason readiness, from executing pick-and-rolls featuring two guards, to switching defensively through all positions, to playing a 2-3 zone and continuing to hammer home a philosophy that it can be anyone’s night.
“We are trying to win as many as we can,” center Ivica Zubac said. “Everyone knows the system, we all know our goals. I don’t want to jinx it but we’ve been really healthy last few games. I feel we got into a rhythm. Everyone knows their role.
“We are locked in and know what to do and we got a bigger goal in mind.”
Tuesday was another lesson in how to combat defensive switches that left opportunities for mismatches rife, and how to pull themselves out of a stagnant half.
Zubac scored 22 points with 12 rebounds, Marcus Morris Sr. scored 18 points and Reggie Jackson had 17 points, with six assists and five rebounds.
Trailing by one at halftime despite Houston shooting less than 40%, the Clippers produced their first quarter of 40 points or more since Jan. 25 by turning six offensive rebounds into 10 points to lead by 14 entering the final quarter. Nicolas Batum, Amir Coffey and Luke Kennard, who had shot a combined 0-11 in the first half, made four of their five shots in the quarter as the team made seven of their nine shots from deep. After eight assists the entire first half, they had nine in the third quarter alone.
“Just came in at halftime and just talked about the only adjustment we gotta make was play the right way, and that was on both ends of the floor,” Lue said.
Even if they continue to do that for the next month, it still might help them reach their goal of finishing with the sixth seed or higher to evade the play-in round that pits the seventh through 10th seeds in a mini-tournament to decide the seventh and eighth postseason berths. They finished the night four and a half games behind sixth-place Denver. In the play-in format that allows a smaller margin for error, “anything can happen,” Lue said.
This is, after all, a Clippers team whose most impressive trait, resilience, has been forged because of a less desirable habit — often falling behind, sometimes by double digits, early.
Yet regardless of their seed, the Clippers could enter as a dangerous group, one that has weathered life without their three most dynamic scorers and won four straight anyway behind a defense that since the Feb. 10 deadline has held opponents to the league’s third-lowest field-goal percentage, second-fewest free-throw attempts, while increasingly ending possessions through grabbing the fourth-highest percentage of defensive rebounds.
Clippers center Ivica Zubac had a career-high six blocked shots in a 99-98 victory over the Rockets on Sunday night in Houston.
“That says a lot about this group,” Mann said.
If the Clippers can continue to grab defensive rebounds like this and “finish those possessions, there’s no telling where we could end up, for real,” Mann added.
Their surge has happened against the backdrop of a Western Conference whose top teams are battered, with Golden State losing six of their last eight games while still waiting for Draymond Green to return and Phoenix enduring the temporary loss of Chris Paul. The Clippers are missing their own foundational pieces, whose absences if they continue would certainly cap their playoff ceiling. But for three weeks they have rolled along, their postseason possibilities suddenly no joke.
“The guys we have on the floor, on the team, they believe they can win every single night,” Lue said. “No matter who’s on the floor.”
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