In an 82-game campaign, there are some nights where the best thing you can do is shake your head and move on.
Tonight was one of those nights for the Clippers, as the 7-13 San Antonio Spurs ran away to a 107-97 victory at home while the visitors from Los Angeles struggled, shooting just 39.1% from the field. The two teams were mutually lethargic in the first half, with lots of sloppy play and missed rotations culminating in a 53-53 tie at halftime.
But the Spurs would find a spark before the Clippers did, blitzing the Clippers 29-18 in the third quarter behind five three-pointers, three of which came from Derrick White. The Clippers failed to score for a four-minute stretch from 5:25 remaining in the third until JaMychal Green went to the foul line with 1:12 to play in the period, and during that time the San Antonio lead grew from 2 to 11, a margin that the Clippers would be unable to overcome.
After pulling ahead in the third, the Spurs’ momentum continued into the final frame, where they scored 23 points in the first 8 minutes of the period. Derrick White made another three, giving him a career-best fifth for the game. Bryn Forbes hit two deep longballs. DeMar DeRozan, who had attempted just four shots from beyond the arc this season, hit a three—his first of the 2019 calendar year. He hadn’t hit a shot from deep since December 26th of 2018. So it went for the Clippers tonight.
When LaMarcus Aldridge finished an alley-oop with 4:00 to play, it was just an exclamation point on an already-decided Spurs victory.
The offensively-gifted Clippers, who average nearly 114 points per game, managed just 97 tonight as most of their main options struggled to get going. Kawhi Leonard, playing in the city where he won his first NBA Finals MVP award, managed 19 points on a poor 8-23 shooting, forcing frequent contested mid-range looks and exhibiting uncharacteristic frustration with the officiating. Montrezl Harrell’s 12 points and 7 rebounds were merely pedestrian.
Tonight’s most disappointing performances, however, came from Paul George and Lou Williams. George contributed 5 points and 5 turnovers while shooting just 2-11 from the field, with his two makes being a layup early in the first quarter and a late three when the result had already been decided. Williams added 7 points and 3 turnovers on 2-10 shooting, while measuring a team-worst -19 in 28 minutes. It was Lou’s lowest-scoring game of the season to date—and the first time he’s failed to reach double-figures in a game where he played more than 20 minutes in over two years. Similarly, this was George’s first single-digit outing as a Clipper, and the fewest he’s scored since a 2-point struggle in November of 2017.
At a certain point, when two of your main four guys are average and the other two each have their worst night in two years, you just have to shrug and move on. All four of Leonard, Harrell, George, and Williams are having strong starts to the season and it’s best to simply put nights like this behind you and trust that the stars will return to form in the next game. Still, there are a few things that the Clippers can learn as a team tonight that go beyond individual poor performances.
Even if guys had been playing well, the ball didn’t move like it needs to tonight. Especially when Leonard is shooting poorly, there’s no need for him to be taking 23 shots while Harrell (12), George (11), and Williams (10) all fail to hit the teens. Sure, Lou and PG weren’t shooting the ball very well either—but if they’d gotten earlier and more frequent touches to find rhythm, things might have turned out a little bit differently. While offensive output hasn’t been a problem for the Clippers this year, they’ve sometimes struggled to play fluid games and that was definitely on display tonight, leading to the over-reliance on Leonard.
Additionally, the team’s defense was lackluster at best as the Spurs surged. Derrick White is a 36% three-point shooter. You don’t expect him to hit five in a night, and you definitely don’t expect him to hit five out of six, but he still isn’t someone that you want to leave open, especially once he’s hit a couple. Bryn Forbes is a known shooter, as is Patty Mills, and frankly the Clippers got lucky, not unlucky, as each of them and dead-eye marksman Marco Belinelli all missed good looks in the second half. The Clippers got caught in bad match-ups against DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in the mid-post, over-helped, and were slow to recover. Frequently, their rotations seemed generic, like they were running a shell drill and not paying attention to who the known shooters and hot hands were on the floor for the Spurs. Most of the time, when San Antonio made the back-breaking threes that built and maintained their lead, it wasn’t bailout shots or unlikely culprits—the Clippers got beat by the guys who you’d expect to beat them, on plays that spectators could see coming from a mile away.
While the Clippers’ main stars struggled, there was one role player who shined tonight: JaMychal Green. Green hit four threes and was largely responsible for keeping the Clippers within punching distance, finishing with 16 points and 8 rebounds. Additionally, as Sabreena Merchant noted on twitter, Green’s solid play on both ends allowed for Doc Rivers to exhibit a lineup we hadn’t seen yet:
First time I believe we’ve seen the JaMychal at five lineups with Kawhi and PG— Sabreena Merchant (@sabreenajm) November 30, 2019
While both Zubac and Harrell are having strong early seasons, Green gives the Clippers a small-ball option at center who provides more defensive versatility/switching with the likes of forwards like Leonard, George, and Maurice Harkless, as well as something neither of the team’s primary big men offers: three-point shooting. It wasn’t enough to get the Clippers back into tonight’s contest, but the spacing offered by a lineup that features Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams at the guards with Leonard, George, and Green at the frontcourt is intriguing enough that Doc might want to develop it for situational use in the playoffs.
As a final note, Jerome Robinson got decent burn tonight as the team’s 9th man with both Landry Shamet and Rodney McGruder sidelined with injuries. While he didn’t do anything spectacular, the oft-maligned prospect was solid, adding 8 points and 3 rebounds in 14 minutes while not turning the ball over and hitting a couple of threes. The minutes he’ll get over the next few weeks will be his best opportunity to show the Clippers (and other potential teams) that he belongs in the NBA—and he’ll be in a prominent enough rotation role that his successes and/or failures will have an impact on the Clippers’ record.
The Clippers fall to 14-6 after tonight’s loss, and are notably just 3-5 on the road with a dominant home-heavy early schedule. It’s worth noting that a bunch of those road games were played without Leonard and/or George, but a double-digit loss to the sub-.500 Spurs tonight isn’t reassuring. The Clippers’ ability to execute on the road will be crucial, as December brings with it 10 road contests, including a 6-game road trip.