LOS ANGELES — The Clippers started off the the new year a little sluggish. By the time they woke up, the 76ers had built a big enough lead and held on through four technical fouls and two ejections to win 119-113.
LA essentially lost the game in the first half. The team surrendered 41 points in the first quarter and 76 points in the first half as it had no answers for Joel Embiid. Marcin Gortat got the start after three straight games of Boban Marjanovic, but was bullied in the post by the All-Star center. Embiid had 19 points and eight rebounds in the first 24 minutes, including three of Philadelphia’s nine offensive rebounds. The Clippers scored reasonably well, led by 28 combined points from Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, but their total of 58 put them in an 18-point hole.
Aside from interior defense, rebounding was an issue for LA. The Clippers were outrebounded by 10 despite allowing the 76ers to shoot 57 percent from the field. They also were a little loose with the ball, committing eight turnovers. Those giveaways turned into 12 points for Philadelphia, as LA had difficulty dealing with Ben Simmons and Co. in transition. Foul trouble also plagued the Clippers, limiting the minutes for Harris and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Sixers — who led wire-to-wire — built a 24-point lead during the second quarter on a three-pointer by Landry Shamet, one of nine threes by Philadelphia before the break compared to four for LA. Gallinari at least ended the half on a high note, racing down the length of the floor for a layup. That energy showed up in the second half, though the team’s execution was still lacking.
The Clippers managed to bring the fight to the Sixers after halftime, both literally and figuratively, but LA kept shooting itself in the foot when it was on the verge of making a big run. The Clippers took 11 more shots than Philadelphia in the third quarter, but could only shave five points off the lead because they missed a number of shots in the paint and kept sending the Sixers to the free-throw line. A Lou Williams floater that swirled all around the rim before bouncing out at the end of the quarter was emblematic of the poor shooting luck the team had in the second half.
In the fourth quarter, the Clippers really got into the game as tempers started to flare. They almost cut the lead to eight on a missed three from Mike Scott and had another chance to get within 10 on a missed layup from Williams. After all of those missed opportunities, LA took full advantage of Jimmy Butler’s ejection. It’s debatable if there was enough contact between Butler and Avery Bradley to warrant double ejections, but given that the incident took place about three minutes after Patrick Beverley and Embiid picked up double technicals for a similar scuffle, there was little tolerance from the referees for any extra-curricular activity.
The Clippers were down by 15 at the time of the ejections, but started to make up ground. The defense forced Simmons into poor decisions and multiple turnovers, and the second-half strategy of doubling Embiid in the post proved even more fruitful in Butler’s absence, when there was worse spacing around the big man. Simmons and Embiid each turned the ball over three times in the second half, part of Philadelphia’s 14 turnovers.
LA pulled to within four with 2:33 left, but the Clippers couldn’t get any closer, this time let down by their offense. The team only made one three-pointer in the second half, which made mounting a comeback quite difficult. LA also shot uncharacteristically poorly from the foul line, making 24-of-34 free throws, including a stunning 5-for-9 from Williams.
It was an inspired showing by the Clippers to get back within single digits, but they didn’t play well enough to deserve the victory. As Doc Rivers said postgame, “It would have been nice to steal a game, but we would have stolen it, not earned it.”
Some positive takeaways included Gallinari’s performance. Philadelphia’s unique perimeter rotation, with the forward-sized Simmons being the primary ball handler, forces some interesting cross matches. Gallinari was often the beneficiary of those mismatches, with the smaller Shamet forced to guard him for stretches, and Gallinari abused his smaller defenders. He was the lone starter to have a positive plus-minus (plus-one) and though he missed a few bunnies around the rim, he scored efficiently. Gallinari also flashed a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Montrezl Harrell.
Harrell played better defense on Embiid than he did Saturday against LaMarcus Aldridge, though he was aided by the team’s willingness to double and trap after exclusively playing one-on-one against the Spurs. The Clippers will also expect to shoot better than 5-of-25 from three in the future.
Nevertheless, it was a frustrating loss for LA. After a surprising start to the season, the Clippers can no longer hope to sneak up on opponents. Harrell put it best after the loss to San Antonio when he said, “We’re just a team that keeps competing, that keeps fighting, that keeps grinding, and keeps finding ways. We gotta do it all game, pretty much. We can’t do it in spurts of the game.”
LA couldn’t win against Philadelphia by playing half of game. The team will have to put together a more complete effort next time around.