With their steady stream of injuries, nights off for halftime, and their consistently inconsistent lineup, the Clippers’ last five months have been one of expectation.
But five weeks before the postseason begins, time is running out for Coach Tyronn Lue to decide which players to 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 Tuesday’s 108-101 loss to Minnesota at Crypto.com Arena, a third straight loss that leaves them 33-31 and in sixth place in the West, one spot away from falling into the play-in tournament.
The defeat underlined the need for what Lue called a self-imposed deadline to mix and match lineup two, and possibly three, more games before deciding which players remain in his regular rotation.
Dealing with a rotation in March won’t prevent him from switching during the April playoffs; Lue coaches by feel, and Minnesota coach Chris Finch called the Clippers’ ability to theoretically plug a veteran out of the rotation as a post-season adjustment a unique advantage. But just as Lue feels he owes it to his players to weed out the options that work from those that don’t, it’s also his responsibility to create continuity. The Clippers were back to full health on Tuesday after center Ivica Zubac returned from a two-game absence due to a leg strain.
Forget their championship aspirations – staying out of the play-in depends on Lue finding the right combinations.
“We definitely feel like we have the deepest team,” said backup guard Eric Gordon, “but…the chemistry has to be there.”
Although Paul George scored 25 points and Kawhi Leonard added 23, the Clippers’ 24 turnovers undermined what had been a 12-point lead in the first half, with their early defensive intensity dissipating in the last three quarters.
“We just have to keep fighting, keep fighting and it’s up to us whether we want to get better or not,” said Leonard. “And that’s how you get better at games. You have to want it and it’s not one or two people, it’s got to be the whole group or even the guys who aren’t playing.”
If Russell Westbrook, who has earned praise for his largely controlled play within the guardrails the team gave up for him, remains a starter, using reserve guards Gordon, Norman Powell and Terance Mann is one of the impending decisions. How much late Lue leans on Marcus Morris Sr., a mainstay of his starting lineup who has struggled in recent games, not playing 16 of Tuesday’s last 17 minutes, is another.
“They’re just not young guys, you have veterans who have proven themselves throughout their careers,” said Gordon. “I think now it seems like we just have to do things where we can be a better team; maybe it fits defensively, maybe it doesn’t just point to how good a player he is – how can they really pass that allows us to win games?
The roster’s wealth of experience and know-how has made some of the Clippers’ most intractable problems all the more glaring.
The energy ebbs and flows. The starters who trailed by 18 in the first quarter against Denver stormed out to a 12-point lead against the Timberwolves on Tuesday. But then 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 allow for a better late-game offense, but his missed jump shot with 72 seconds left while five down was an example of the team needing to better understand where the ball went had to in clutch situations, Lue said. , and also blame yourself.
The ball movement is also sharp or causes self-inflicted wounds. Powell’s pass to a slashing Leonard for a dunk was his most impressive assist this season. Still, 63 combined turnovers in the last three games have put a struggling defense in even more difficult situations.
“I’m not worried for a second,” said Westbrook, who had 14 points, 10 assists and four lost possessions. “We have an incredibly talented group in this dressing room and we know what we have, we need to make sure we put it together and I really feel like we’ve given away three games so far. We will solve it together.”