Losing streak hits four, but Clippers find reason to smile in setback against Nuggets
The Clippers left this loss trying to hide their grins, and if the incongruity was unusual, it was because that although this was a game played in March, the intent was about April.
Three weeks before the postseason begins with a potential rematch against Denver in the play-in tournament here in Colorado, the Clippers suffered a 127-115 loss while feeling strongly they’d potentially gained an advantage for later use.
It was the reason why even as the Clippers’ losing streak reached a season-high four games, guard Terance Mann called morale strong in the locker room, not only because of what they’d seen after testing matchup and lineup combinations against Denver, but also because different, more potent lineups could be coming as the postseason arrives — with the injured Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Norman Powell not ruled out for returns.
“I think we know what the future holds,” Mann said. “We got guys coming back, we got guys in good places, so, even though it’s a four-game losing streak, we got to learn from it.”
Both Mann and coach Tyronn Lue smiled when asked about some of the different lineups they had tried, from four wings surrounding center Isaiah Hartenstein, and the effective trio of Nicolas Batum, Robert Covington and Mann, to the small-ball lineup that scored eight unanswered points in the second quarter to trim their deficit to just three. Even in a loss, “we found some things tonight that we can do,” Lue said, highlighting lineups with Marcus Morris Sr., Batum and Covington, for one.
“I won’t say [what],” said Mann, who scored 24 points with eight rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers, “but we found a few things we can work on and hopefully bring it out either in the play-in game or the playoffs.”
Clippers star Paul George has begun four-on-four workouts as he tests the recovery from an injury to his right elbow with a return to play possible.
The Clippers (36-38) are using their last weeks of the season to accomplish two goals: continuing to practice good habits, which start with defensive communication and offense that attacks the paint and moves the ball, while also testing different wrinkles that Lue can use to befuddle playoff opponents,.
The habits still could use work. Denver made 50% of its three-pointers, jumped the Clippers by 10 points in the first quarter and saw contributors who typically occupy smaller real estate on the marquee behind star Nikola Jokic hit big shots, from Monte Morris to Bones Hyland and Austin Rivers.
A two-point game with 4:27 to play devolved into a 12-point loss after mistakes that guard Reggie Jackson attributed to poor communication, lumping himself in his own critique after getting “lost” in allowing a three by Will Barton with 70 seconds left that pushed Denver’s lead to 11. Denver (43-30), so dependent on reigning most valuable player Nikola Jokic, blew up the Clippers’ attempt to rally from down by as many as 14 by getting timely baskets from its supporting cast.
Hyland made four of six three-pointers off the bench, Rivers made three of five and Morris made all three of his shots behind the arc. Jokic scored 30 points with 14 rebounds and six assists.
“It’s hard to win a game in the NBA when a team’s shooting that well from three,” Mann said.
When the Clippers did get stops, they were fleeting. Covington’s spectacular block of Aaron Gordon at the rim with four minutes to play, in a two-point game, looked to give the Clippers a chance to tie the score. But before they could get the ball, Gordon flipped it to Monte Morris in the corner for a three-pointer, and the lead was five.
“They made timely shots down the stretch,” Lue said, “but I thought we played well.”
Tyronn Lue made sure his starters knew he was disgusted with their first-half play, but it did little to spur the Clippers in a 121-92 loss to the Jazz.
By that, he meant how Denver grabbed just six offensive rebounds, tied for the fewest allowed by the Clippers all season. Turnovers also were a non-factor, with just six, which also tied a season low.
Lue can be cuttingly critical of his teams following losses, but after allowing just 55 points in the second half, he looked pleased that his team had heeded his advice from Monday to not “throw away” the good habits and grit the Clippers showed during their previous 73 games, even with their play-in tournament fate sealed.
“It’s about us getting better each and every day and not getting complacent with where we’re at and continue to strive to be our best,” said Jackson, who scored 14 points with zero turnovers but missed all four of his three-pointers. “We really think we could do something special and we don’t necessarily care about our seeding. We’ve just got to be playing basketball the right way and got to get in and from there we know we can make a lot of noise.”
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