All in all, when you embark on a six-game, nine-day trip that includes two sets of back-to-backs, walking away 4-2 is a win.
That’s even moreso the case for this year’s Clippers, who know that they’ll be shorthanded on every back-to-back, as reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard saves his legs for another post-season run. Add to that the specific circumstances of this trip—where starting point guard Patrick Beverley is out with a concussion, sixth man extraordinaire and team assists leader Lou Williams is out with a sore calf, and key role players like Rodney McGruder, Landry Shamet, JaMychal Green, and Patrick Patterson have all missed time—and it only figures that the Clippers’ available core players would be exhausted by the time they arrived to Chicago for the end of this long road trip.
It should be enough to point to the players the Clippers have pressed into service: Derrick Walton Jr., who snagged the final roster spot on a non-guaranteed deal, has been their most reliable guard, outplaying prospects Jerome Robinson and Terance Mann. But the Clippers have been so short-handed that even with Walton being the best of the bunch, all three have had to play regular minutes. Jerome Robinson shot just 1-13 from three on this road trip. Mann, on the other hand, didn’t even attempt a shot from deep. Neither looked ready for NBA minutes, but both got them consistently due to the injuries in front of them.
Tonight, the Clippers just didn’t have enough in the tank to pull out a victory. Paul George (27 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds, 6 turnovers) and Montrezl Harrell (30 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks) led the charge, but even they were clearly running on fumes. George ultimately finished -21 in 31 minutes as the starters struggled severely, and the normally hyper-efficient Harrell shot just 9-24 from the field as his legs couldn’t quite lift him to his normal finishes. All night, the Clippers were just slower than normal—in transition, driving to the rim, and especially moving their feet on perimeter defense, as the Bulls penetrated the lane at will when LAC was in man defense.
After allowing a 17-0 run and falling behind by 14 midway through the third quarter, things seemed dire for the Clippers—but they fought back behind Harrell and George, eventually tying the game and actually taking a 5-point lead in the closing minutes. It was a moment where despite obvious fatigue, L.A. kept getting after it, drawing fouls and crashing the offensive glass. Rodney McGruder and Patrick Patterson joined Montrezl Harrell in scrappy efforts to keep possessions alive, and the team’s zone defense stymied the Bulls for a short stretch.
Ultimately, the shorthanded Clippers just didn’t get enough support beyond George and Harrell to spark the team. Landry Shamet, playing his first game in over a month as he returned from energy, hit some feel-good shots and finished with 11 points, as did Patrick Patterson, who hit a couple of threes and grabbed 6 boards off the bench. But where the Clippers needed a breakout performance elsewhere, none was to be found: Ivica Zubac, Moe Harkless, Terance Mann, Rodney McGruder, Jerome Robinson, and Derrick Walton Jr. all finished with 6 or fewer points, leaving the team’s two exhausted leaders to shoulder a massive offensive burden.
The Bulls, to their credit, did enough to fend off what was a legitimate run by the Clippers. They hit fourteen threes, including four each from Zach LaVine and Denzel Valentine, who were confident beyond the arc, each hitting big shots late to boost Chicago to victory. The Bulls are at a fairly frustrating place in their team-building process, but it’s clear that there are talented pieces on the roster in those two as well as young big men like Lauri Markannen and Wendell Carter Jr., who each made contributions tonight.
As the Clippers fought back in the second half tonight, I speculated that a big comeback win in such dire circumstances could be a big character-building moment for the squad, and a confidence-booster for some of the role players who got increased opportunity tonight. That didn’t fully materialize, but the Clips still have nothing to be ashamed of—given their injury struggles, heading back to L.A. with four wins from this six-game roadie is a solid par, and they can look to brighter days ahead as Beverley, Williams, and Green should all be returning to the lineup soon.