Clippers still seeking right roster combination as they fall to Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley drives against Clippers forward Paul George during the first half.
Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley drives against Clippers forward Paul George during the first half Tuesday at Arena.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

With their steady stream of injuries, the nights off for rest and their consistently inconsistent lineups, the Clippers’ last five months were spent playing wait-and-see.

Yet five weeks before the postseason begins, time is running out for coach Tyronn Lue to decide the players he will rely on during the playoff push and, as a result, for the Clippers to decide who they will be.

By this time next week, the Clippers are expected to look different than they did in Tuesday’s 108-101 loss against Minnesota at Arena, a third consecutive loss that leaves them 33-31 and in sixth place in the West, one spot from falling into the play-in tournament.


The defeat underscored the need for what Lue called a self-imposed deadline to mix and match lineups two, and possibly three, more games before deciding which players remain in his regular rotation.

Settling on a rotation in March won’t preclude him from changes during April’s playoffs; Lue coaches by feel, and Minnesota coach Chris Finch called the Clippers’ ability to theoretically plug in an out-of-rotation veteran as a postseason adjustment a unique advantage. But just as Lue feels he owes it to his players to exhaust the options that work from those that don’t, it’s also his responsibility to create continuity. The Clippers were back to full health Tuesday after center Ivica Zubac returned from a two-game absence because of a strained leg.

Forget their championship aspirations — staying out of the play-in hinges on Lue finding the right combinations.

“We definitely do feel that we have the deepest team,” backup guard Eric Gordon said, “but … the chemistry has to be there.”

Nothing went right for the Clippers in overtime after a game-winning buzzer-beater by Paul George came too late in a 134-124 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

Though Paul George scored 25 points and Kawhi Leonard added 23, the Clippers’ 24 turnovers undercut what had been a 12-point first-half lead, their early defensive intensity disappearing in the last three quarters.

“We just gotta keep fighting, keep fighting it and it’s on us if we want to get better or not,” Leonard said. “And that’s how you get better in games. You have to want it and it’s not one or two people, it’s gonna have to be the whole group or even the guys that’s not playing.”

If Russell Westbrook, who has earned praise for his largely controlled play within the guardrails the team specified for him, remains a starter, then the usage of reserve guards Gordon, Norman Powell and Terance Mann figures to be one of the looming decisions. How much Lue leans late on Marcus Morris Sr., a mainstay of his starting lineup who has struggled in recent games and didn’t play 16 of Tuesday’s final 17 minutes, is another one.

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook brings the ball up against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Clippers guard Russell Westbrook brings the ball up against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half on Tuesday at Arena.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

“It’s just not young guys, you got veterans that have proven themselves throughout their career,” Gordon said. “I think now it seems like it’s just we need to do things where we can be a better team; maybe it’s fitting in defensively, maybe it’s certain pinpoints on not just how good of a player he is — how can they really fit in that can make us win games?”

The roster’s wealth of experience and know-how has made some of the Clippers’ most persistent issues all the more glaring.

The energy ebbs and flows. The starters who fell behind by 18 in the first quarter against Denver charged out to a 12-point lead Tuesday against the Timberwolves. Then, however, that double-digit lead also evaporated as Minnesota built a lead that stretched to 13 in the fourth quarter.

The Clippers signed Westbrook in part to facilitate better late-game offense, but his missed jump shot with 72 seconds left, while trailing by five, was an example of the team needing to better understand where the ball should go in clutch situations, Lue said, and pointed blame at himself too.

Coach Tyronn Lue was ‘intrigued by what I saw’ in Russell Westbrook’s debut as starting point guard, but admits Terance Mann ‘should have played more.’

The ball movement is also either sharp or creates wounds that are self-inflicted. Powell’s pass to a cutting Leonard for a dunk was his most impressive assist this season. Yet 63 combined turnovers in the last three games have put a struggling defense into even more difficult situations.

“I’m not one bit worried,” said Westbrook, who had 14 points, 10 assists and four turnovers. “We have an unbelievably talented group in this locker room and we know what we have, we just got to make sure we put it together and I really feel we gave three games away thus far. We’re going to get it together.”