Without Paul George, Clippers fall to Pelicans in play-in game and will miss playoffs
It was uncomfortable.
It was raucous.
It was 96 decibels of unbridled joy and audible concern.
It was a 16-point first-half Clippers deficit, a 13-point lead just 19 minutes later, a game they played without their leading scorer and the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter.
It was the only appropriate plot for Friday to follow, a must-win play-in game that distilled 84 Clippers games of short-handed rosters, stunning rallies and down-to-the-end finishes into 48 minutes.
And it was the end, a 105-101 decision claimed forcefully by New Orleans in the final minutes of the play-in tournament. Considering the Clippers’ penchant for wriggling out of impossible holes on their way to 13 comeback victories after trailing by double digits, reality of the end didn’t seem to set in inside Crypto.com Arena as Reggie Jackson and his teammates left the floor, chants of their names still trailing them.
Three days after losing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter at Minnesota to blow their first opportunity to claim a playoff berth, the Clippers saw their 13-point lead with 10 minutes to play, and the eighth and final playoff berth in the West, slip away as fatigue, missed free throws and poor rebounding took their toll.
“We spent a lot of energy,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “We stopped moving, rebounding, communication.”
Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr. each scored 27 points to lead the Clippers, who were outrebounded by nine and outscored by seven on second-chance points when the small-ball lineups they used the entire second half eventually grew tired. The offensive rebounds they allowed were their Achilles’ heel all season and contributed to the end of it. But it wasn’t the only factor.
When Norman Powell missed a free throw with 16.9 seconds left and the Clippers trailing 103-100, it was their 12th missed free throw. They finished 22 for 34. He then made the second to pull within two, but a dunk by Jonas Valanciunas pushed their deficit to four.
Out of a final timeout, where the injured Kawhi Leonard clapped throughout, the Clippers had two final chances, but Jackson and Morris missed three-pointers. Coach Tyronn Lue, who never had missed the playoffs as an assistant or coach, called it odd to now be on the outside looking in.
Trae Young (38 points) led the Atlanta Hawks to a 107-101 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to set up a first-round matchup vs. the Miami Heat.
“It’s been an unbelievable season for our guys and everything we had to go through,” Lue said. “Tough situation tonight, ending the way it did. For the guys in the locker room, scrapping and the way we competed all year long … it’s most disappointing for those guys in the locker room who fought and clawed all year.”
Brandon Ingram scored 30 points to lead New Orleans, which will open its first-round series against top-seeded Phoenix on Sunday. CJ McCollum added 19 points but was harassed after his efficient first quarter, making just nine of 24 shots.
“It felt like it was trending in the right direction for us,” Morris said, meaning the game but also the season.
The Pelicans unfurled a 14-1 fourth-quarter run to tie the score on a McCollum three-pointer with seven minutes remaining before Jackson made a floating jumper, but with Lue playing only six players in the second half, the Clippers’ shot selection began to struggle.
It was a frustrating finish to a disappointing day.
Lue awoke to two missed calls Friday morning and learned the Clippers’ leading scorer, Paul George, had entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
“Disappointing news,” the coach said.
But not surprising.
“It sucked,” Jackson said, “but it’s something we had to deal with all year.”
Between Leonard’s season-long absence, George’s hurt elbow, other injuries and a wave of COVID-related absences, Clippers players missed 385 total games during the regular season. Tweaking a game plan only hours before tipoff typically might be startling. So would have been the compounded loss of Luke Kennard, the NBA’s most accurate three-point shooter.
But Lue grabbed center Ivica Zubac before halftime ended and told him he’d play small ball. He didn’t think it would last the entire second half, but when the Clippers outscored New Orleans by 20 in the third quarter, he rolled with an all-wings lineup that showed why they almost assuredly will be installed as one of the betting favorites to win the 2023 NBA title.
Morris said the team would need a backup point guard to make them a legitimate title contender. Batum, who has a player option for next season, spoke of having “fun next year,” but shook his head when asked if he’d considered what he would do.
“This team could be pretty special,” Lue said, “but it’s all about health.”
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