How Did We Get Here? is a weekly column during the regular season looking at moments during a given week that got the Clippers to the current spot that they are in. It could be discussing adjustments, reflecting on trends, or observing big-picture ideas. With just the season opener to take into account, here’s the first edition of How Did We Get Here?
There was 5:14 left in Wednesday’s season opener when Tobias Harris sank his second of two free throws to put the Clippers up, 92-84, against the short-handed Nuggets. Will Barton and Jamal Murray would slice that in half with jumpers, but the Clippers remained up four when the Nuggets called timeout with 3:38 to go.
Patrick Beverley returned out of the break. Avery Bradley had come in six seconds earlier, confusion abounding about who he was replacing in the Clippers’ backcourt.
The Bradley substitution, alone, should have been an alarm for what was to come. Why was Bradley entering for the NBA’s leading scorer in the fourth quarter a season ago? Why was Lou Williams lingering on the court with Bradley tapping him repeatedly before he sauntered towards the baseline?
There had to be a sense of “wait, what?” from Williams. He had five fourth-quarter assists, three of which came during an uncanny Boban Marjanovic run that gave the Clippers their largest lead. Without Williams, and six seconds later without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had been arguably the most dynamic player on the floor not named Nikola Jokic, the Clippers had zero playmaking from the backcourt.
What ensued was a series of missteps, missed shots, and ultimately a missed opportunity to beat a middle-tier playoff contender. The Clippers did not make a field goal over a 5:11 stretch. Of course, their only field goal ironically came from Williams at a meaningless juncture with 22 seconds left. He was reinserted for Bradley with 1:24 to go, with the lead and his mojo completely evaporated.
The Clippers lost because they couldn’t make shots to close the game.
I read the distressed comments on Twitter from longtime Clippers fans. Trying to channel that frustration and also not go too deep into opening night overaction mode means understanding that most coaches would not play someone nearly 17-straight minutes in the season opener, or that a rookie, in his first game, is likely not to play the entire fourth quarter.
However, with so many capable rotation players, this season is not going to be typical. It was obvious Doc Rivers recognized the diluted offense without Williams, because as soon as Bradley stepped on the sideline before bricking a 3-pointer, he sent Williams to the scorer’s table. Too late.
For the Clippers to compete in the West, or to have true postseason ambitions, unconventional thinking will have to set in. Loyalty to starters, traditional substitution patterns, and easing rookies into things is not going to work. The good news is that Gilgeous-Alexander, who looked smooth and unafraid, played 28 minutes. It’s just that three and a half more might have preserved a win.