Clippers’ blowout loss to Pelicans an ominous sign of critical week ahead

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, shoots in front of New Orleans Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, shoots in front of New Orleans Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. during the first half of the Clippers’ 131-110 loss Saturday at Arena.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

To avoid the play-in tournament or hold onto home-court advantage for a first-round series, the Clippers need a big finish to the regular season.

Starts like the one that led to Saturday’s 131-110 loss will make that more difficult.

Facing the New Orleans Pelicans at Arena, the Clippers trailed by eight within two minutes, before most fans had taken their seats.


Two minutes into the second quarter, their 11-point deficit had grown to 19.

Kawhi Leonard scored 32 points as the Clippers, without Paul George, took control of the second half to cruise to a 127-105 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

March 23, 2023

Barely more than four minutes into the third, their 12-point deficit was up to 18.

With the suspense gone, the attention during the second half turned toward what was happening off stage. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard left for the locker room with four minutes left in the third quarter after being elbowed in the face by Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram. Team executives quickly left their seats to follow Leonard down the arena tunnel.

Leonard suffered a facial bruise and did not return. Not that there was any need. The Clippers were so thoroughly routed that coach Tyronn Lue inserted the team’s G League reserves with eight minutes left.

Again and again, the Pelicans’ best shooters found and made open shots while converting 21 of 34 three-point attempts.

Clippers guard Terance Mann, right, tries to shoot in front of New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall.
Clippers guard Terance Mann, right, tries to shoot in front of New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall during the first half Saturday.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Again and again, the Clippers could never apply enough pressure to change that — even in a matchup with dire postseason seeding stakes — an ominous sign for a critical week ahead as they face Western Conference opponents in three of their next four games as they jockey for playoff position.

“It’s tough to dig yourself a hole and try to climb out every single night,” Lue said. “We got to be better starting games. ... Tonight we just didn’t have a lot of juice and a lot of pop. Nothing to get discouraged about, we just got to be a little better.”


The Clippers are 39-36 and left the night in fifth place in the West after entering it in fourth. The loss could be felt for days. Not only is Leonard’s timeline for a return unclear, but the loss clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker for New Orleans (37-37).

One game after making 13 of 15 shots in a victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Leonard missed all six of his three-point shots and made only four of 16 shots for 12 points. Russell Westbrook made four of 12 shots for 14 points. Reserve Bones Hyland scored a game-high 18.

Hours before tipoff, there was a sign of optimism when injured guard Norman Powell, sidelined since March 2, posted to Instagram a collection of photos of him in practice against various levels of contact.

But Powell isn’t expected to be back by the next game, Monday against the Chicago Bulls, still needing to hit a more benchmarks in his recovery before he’s cleared for game action. Paul George, of course, also won’t be on the court anytime soon because of a sprained right knee. Now there is Leonard.

But if there were any opponent with zero sympathy for the Clippers’ injury woes, it is New Orleans.

A hamstring has sidelined star forward Zion Williamson since Jan. 2. Guard Jose Alvarado hasn’t played since Feb. 27 because of a tibia injury. And though Saturday was the 74th game for New Orleans, it was Brandon Ingram’s 37th.

Most concerning for the Clippers, then, was that New Orleans did not need its full complement of players to take control Saturday.


They needed only two.

The Clippers and Paul George appear to have dodged the worst-case scenario. The All-Star forward suffered a sprained right knee and will be reevaluated in 2-3 weeks.

March 22, 2023

Ingram and Trey Murphy each scored 32 points. Murphy said he heard the Clippers’ bench “chirping” at him before his first three, then added nine more — his 10 three-pointers only five fewer than the Clippers made.

Ingram scored three baskets during New Orleans’ first five possessions, taking advantage of the Clippers’ inability to keep up in transition. When they tried double-teaming Ingram, they lost track of Murphy for four first-quarter threes.

By the first quarter’s end, the Pelicans made nine of their 11 three-pointers to lead by 11, and the combination of Ingram and Murphy’s 26 points equaled the Clippers’ total. It was the second consecutive game since the revamped starting lineup missing George created a first-quarter deficit instead of an advantage. But where reserves such as Hyland and Terance Mann infused energy and pace that jump-started Thursday’s first-quarter comeback, the impact of their substitutions was immediately undercut by turnovers. The Clippers committed 20, which turned into 28 New Orleans points.

When the Clippers pulled to within 10 midway through the second and Lue implemented a small lineup, a group of fans behind the basket nearest the team bench began a loud “We want Ro-Co” chant, pleading for Lue to insert little-used forward Robert Covington. Covington did not come in for Marcus Morris Sr. until four minutes remained in the third quarter and the Clippers down 19.