December 2, 2021

Remarkable Mate

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Clippers start hot before quickly fading in loss to Pelicans

New Orleans was 1-6 at home.

It had lost 11 of its last 12 games.

It owned the NBA’s worst second-half net rating, by a wide margin, and the league’s worst defense.

It had not played its starting lineup more than a single minute, perhaps why it trailed the Clippers by 20 only 14 minutes into Friday night.

All those factors made their 94-81 win against the Clippers at Smoothie King Center all the more stunning.

The Clippers were assuredly fatigued, playing for a second consecutive night and for the fifth time in seven days. As one Pelicans staffer said while leaving the building, “We took advantage of some tired legs.” Yet this couldn’t be explained away as a so-called schedule loss.

“We should have won tonight,” Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe said.

With starting forward Nicolas Batum back after Achilles’ tendon soreness limited him to 14 minutes Tuesday and sidelined him altogether Thursday, the Clippers opened a double-digit lead within 10 minutes and led by 20 only four minutes later. At that point, three Clippers reserves had outscored the entire opposing roster.

The only moment of concern was when starting center Ivica Zubac was hit in the nose by the right hand of Herbert Jones while going for a rebound, a smack that eventually forced Zubac to go to the locker room with both nostrils plugged with bloody gauze. Then he returned in the second quarter and provided pinpoint passing as the pick-and-roll roll man.

It was the last time the offense flowed. The Clippers (9-7) mustered 26 second-half points, and coach Tyronn Lue drew a distinction between the woes that landed his team in a 1-4 start and those that submarined their two-game trip.

“When we was 1-4, I thought we had some good games. We moved the basketball, made the right play and just didn’t make shots,” he said. “Now, it’s just we’re getting stagnant, we’re not playing the same way we did early on in the season, and we talked about this three or four games ago.

“Even when we won, like, just not playing the right way. We got to get back to that, and we got to keep showing it and then go from there.”

Paul George scored 19 points, making eight of his 26 shots. After George shot at least 11 free throws in the two games that preceded this trip, the Clippers as a whole attempted single-digit free throws against Memphis and New Orleans, with Friday’s 13 combined foul shots tied for the second-fewest attempted by two teams in the last 25 years, according to ESPN Stats.

“We can say a lot of things. We could have done a lot of things tonight that would have been better for us, but we just was flat,” George said. “I thought we had good shots, good looks, we was just flat.”

Batum scored 12, making his quiet but invaluable presence felt in the third quarter, when he made a three-pointer off a sideline inbounds play to pull the Clippers ahead 64-63, then another three off a screen for a 67-65 lead. He did it while guarding Brandon Ingram, New Orleans’ toughest assignment, and deflected a pass out of bounds.

But excitement over his return was tempered somewhat by the way he felt, saying he felt compelled to play on a sore Achilles’ tendon — one he first felt nagging last week.

“We have so many guys out,” he said. “So I had to find a way to play through that, and play.”

Before a 12:30 p.m. tipoff Sunday against Dallas, the Clippers must diagnose how to get their starting backcourt of Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson back in the groove that kept the ball moving and helped the team win eight of nine games. Breaking from his custom of keeping at least one of his starting guards on the court at all times, Lue replaced both Bledsoe and Jackson in second-half stretches with Terance Mann and Luke Kennard, a decision he attributed to a feeling.

Bledsoe took only two shots in Thursday’s loss and made three of his 10 on Friday. The fans, who endured his lone season of near career-low production with the Pelicans last season and booed him every time he touched the ball, got what they wanted.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “That was kind of weird to me, but it’s part of the game.”

After Jackson’s confidence was revived by a win-clinching jumper against Oklahoma City on Nov.1, Jackson shot 39% or better from the field in each of his next six games, including four games of 50% or better. In his last four, however, his accuracy has again slipped: 23%, 36%, 43% and, on Friday, 18% (two for 11). At times, Jackson was slowed by screens and didn’t immediately bounce back up.

The Clippers are in a similar position, trying to stagger back on their feet.

“We’re gonna be OK,” Batum said. “Just was a tough stretch, two games, a little fatigue on our side, but we got to get back through it and play.”


https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2021-11-19/clippers-lose-pelicans-paul-george-nba