DENVER — The LA Clippers gave themselves a real chance Tuesday night in a nationally televised, In-Season Tournament road game against the defending NBA champion Denver Nuggets. Down by three points with 13.0 seconds left, Paul George, the game’s leading scorer with 35 points, had the ball.
Despite being draped by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and missing his previous four fourth-quarter 3s, George attempted a game-tying field goal, one that created the latest ignominious image of LA’s losing streak: a wedgie.
Now, a wedgie is not the worst thing that can happen to a team attempting to tie a game. It’s not an automatic rebound for the defense, rather, a jump ball. But Ivica Zubac, the Clippers’ starting center, has struggled to control tips at center court all season long, and this one was no exception. The Clippers fell to the Nuggets 111-108.
Of LA’s six straight losses as part of a 3-7 start, this one was the easiest to forecast no matter where you looked. The Clippers have struggled mightily in Denver, now losing five in a row there. The Clippers also are winless on the road, losing to teams in November like the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies. And LA has yet to win a game since acquiring James Harden on Oct. 31.
Six straight losses is an emotional albatross at any point. To have six straight losses highlighted by the acquisition of a former MVP who is starting is humiliating for all involved. The Clippers also still struggle with basic basketball issues that existed during the team’s 3-2 pre-Harden portion of the season. The Clippers simply look too small, too slow and too old far too frequently.
In the second quarter, the Clippers failed to score a single point in the paint, getting blanked 16-0 by the Nuggets inside. Zubac, who struggled in the first half while missing all four of his shots, was somewhat better to begin the third quarter before foul trouble creeped in. The Clippers went small and outscored the Nuggets by 12 points with Zubac off the floor and Terance Mann at center for the final 4:48 of the third quarter and the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, taking a 99-92 lead.
The Clippers were outscored 19-9 in those last six minutes, as the Nuggets physically overwhelmed a Clippers team scrambling to defend Nikola Jokić with Kawhi Leonard, George, Mann and P.J. Tucker. If Jokić wasn’t scoring, getting an offensive rebound or drawing a foul, then Aaron Gordon was finding a way to punish the Clippers for their lack of size and energy.
The Clippers stayed small in that stretch to close out the game, part of an ongoing saga of trying to balance Harden’s and Russell Westbrook’s minutes. Westbrook was on the floor when the Clippers established their fourth-quarter lead, but Harden subbed in for Westbrook at the 5:20 mark, and the Clippers made only two field goals for the rest of the game. Harden was largely uninvolved in the offense, except for this missed layup after driving by Jokić that commenced a stretch where the Clippers failed to score in five of six possessions.
“I keep reiterating that I didn’t have a training camp or a preseason,” Harden said, a line that’s repeated more often than Homer Simpson on his first day. “So, you know, kind of learning on the fly with a new team and also getting myself into James Harden shape, in game shape, is very important. So tonight was definitely another step in the right direction, and just keep improving.”
While Harden is admittedly using games to make up for practices, the rest of the star core is going through it. George scored in Denver, but his wedgie capped a frustrating night overall. He received a technical foul in the first half following a missed fast-break opportunity and a finishing kick where he missed five of his last six shots overall. Too often, the late-game offense turned into George chucking and trying to draw contact that wasn’t getting called. George took 11 field goals in the fourth quarter, while the rest of the team had room for eight attempts. Afterward, George took umbrage with the officiating.
“I thought we played great — it’s tough, the adversity of playing against the extra three,” George said, referring to officials Josh Tiven, Natalie Sago, and Matt Boland. “I thought they were awful. But, defending champs, we got to play better. There’s a lot to be positive about. I’m not one for moral victories, but I thought we showed more of a sign of a team tonight that’s close to getting it over the hump.”
The Clippers missed 21 of 38 shots in the paint overall Tuesday, including 15 misses in the restricted area. But at least Harden and George stuck around to talk about it. Westbrook left the locker room almost as soon as Lue was done speaking postgame, which has been par the course this month. Zubac and Mann also were visibly upset as they exited for the team bus. But this was the first time Leonard also was gone, and it came after another frustrating game where he missed eight of 11 shots inside the arc while dealing with Gordon’s coverage.
“Well, it takes the ball out of Kawhi’s hands, which is great for us,” Gordon said when asked about defending Leonard with Harden added to the Clippers lineup. “Kawhi’s a bucket. Certifiably. He can pretty much get to his spots whenever he wants to. So I was just trying to make it difficult for him. Just try to make him think about what he’s trying to do.”
Asked Aaron Gordon about what it is like to guard Kawhi Leonard with the other perimeter stars on the floor for the Clippers now.
“Well, it takes it takes the ball out of Kawhi’s hands, which is great for us. Kawhi’s a bucket. Certifiably.”
Reminds me of what Jrue said in Feb. pic.twitter.com/8vhJp9mQV4
— Law Murray 🧾 (@LawMurrayTheNU) November 15, 2023
The Clippers did show some signs of progress Tuesday.
The much-maligned Harden had his highest-scoring game as a Clipper, notching 21 points while generating four assists and three 3s. Ten of Harden’s points came in a full-shift third quarter. George also had his highest-scoring output with Harden playing, making a season-high 13 field goals overall and carrying LA’s offense throughout a 20-point first half.
“PG had it going, so he was able to make the short roll pass and kind of get guys involved,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “With James in the pick-and-roll, they were blitzing, or he was getting downhill and making the right pass and right play. And so, you know, that was good to see. It’s the most comfortable he’s been since he’s been here, and it’s something to go off of. So very encouraging, you know? Disappointed that we couldn’t get the win, but I saw some good things.”
Westbrook got his first dunks since the season opener, finding assists from Zubac and Mann in the half-court offense while adjusting to decreased touches.
LA led the league in steals entering Tuesday’s game and piled on 10 more, including Leonard’s crucial steal of an ill-advised Jokić pass in the backcourt that allowed the Clippers to keep the game within one possession in the last 20 seconds. The Clippers also won the possession battle for the first time since Harden debuted, holding a 14-6 offensive-rebound advantage and a 14-11 takeaway advantage.
“We can definitely take a lot of positives off of this game,” Harden said. “We took a lot of steps in the right direction.”
There’s not much the Clippers can do about their 3-7 record for the rest of the week except get back in the lab. The only game they have between now and Sunday is Friday night at home against the Houston Rockets for another In-Season Tournament affair.
The Clippers have stretches in all of their losses when they compete and play well, whether it’s at the beginning of games or when they need to overcome a double-digit deficit. But the Clippers have a winning games problem. The talent is there, the cohesiveness is not. Granted, being too small and not knowing what to do to close games was an issue before the Harden trade. But there’s little solace in knowing what the issues are or how long they have been a problem. They just need wins with what they have now. Any win.
“We can’t hang our heads, you know, being on a six-game losing streak,” Lue said. “But we can just keep working, like I said, keep being resilient. And it’s going to happen. You know, I’ve been here before with a lot of good teams, and it’s going to take a little time. And so tonight was a step in the right direction. We just have to continue to keep building.”
(Top photo of Paul George: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)