The Clippers lost to the Jazz last night, 120-107. If you were wondering where the recap was, it was mostly non-existent because of the limit imposed on me by SB Nation to complete 35 posts at maximum since our new roles were announced, a limit which I’m already rapidly approaching. There is another reason, however – I just don’t have too much to say about this game. Ultimately, basketball is a game determined by who can score the most points, and the Jazz simply shot the ball far better than the Clippers did last night. The Jazz shot over 50% from the field and 48.6% from three, remarkable numbers for a team that has been below-average offensively this year. The Clippers, meanwhile, struggled to the tune of 36.8% from the field and 30% from three, paltry numbers that probably wouldn’t allow victories against many teams, much less a legitimately good Jazz squad.
Of course, the Jazz were part of the reason that the Clippers shot so poorly, just as the Clippers’ defense at least somewhat played into the hot night for the Jazz. The Jazz are a strong defensive team, and are one of the few rosters that have the size and length to at least bother Paul George and Kawhi Leonard consistently. Rudy Gobert adjusted many shots around the rim, as he is wont to do – that’s just something to prepare for when playing the Jazz. Still, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George went 12-44 from the field. The Jazz had something to do with that, but both those guys were simply off. It happens, and when it does, the Clippers probably won’t win, especially against good team.
On the other end, the Clippers had a few breakdowns, as most teams do over the course of a 48 minute game. However, the Clippers’ biggest issue was merely how well the Jazz were shooting; Donovan Mitchell was rarely open, yet he shot 13-23 from the field on a series of extremely difficult and challenging shots. Again, this is what Mitchell can do, but that doesn’t mean the Clippers were at fault. An excellent player was feeling himself (as was Joe Ingles), and that’s never a good thing for the opposing team. It was a confluence of events that did not favor the Clippers, and the Jazz fully deserved the win, as they played great basketball nearly from start to finish. That doesn’t mean there’s much more to take away from this.
The NBA has an interesting paradox in that the NBA regular season contains 90% (at least) of NBA basketball, yet there’s a sense that only the postseason matters. This has delegitimized regular season success (to some extent) and brought much derision on players and teams who have seemed to stumble in the playoffs. At the same time, in an 82-game season, not every game will be important, meaningful, or even entertaining.
The advent of social media has led to a “hot take” culture in which every performance can be made fun of and built upon to make a point. Kawhi Leonard struggles from the field? Hundreds of people on Twitter will start talking about how he might not be the same player as he was last year. LeBron struggles in a big Christmas game? Talking heads will leverage that poor contest to argue that he’s not as good as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, or any other basketball legend from a prior era. Frankly, it’s nonsense. There are very few single games that should have an impact on a player’s legacy, and none of them are late-December contests. So, contradictorily, while there’s a strong subset of NBA (and casual) fans that deride the regular season and that lack of importance, much of that same group also overreacts to every game that’s played.
To tie it back together, last night’s loss to the Jazz prompted a host of people on Twitter (and presumably other social media platforms) to declaim the loss as indicative of the Jazz being a tough matchup. The Jazz are certainly a very good team, one of the 10 best teams in the NBA and one of a handful of teams in the West that’s clearly a postseason squad that could do some damage if things bounce their way. Rudy Gobert possesses some challenges for the Clippers, as he does for many teams. However, a close loss to the Jazz on a night the Clippers three leading scorers all shot horribly from the field is not as much of an indication of a bad matchup as it is an affirmation of the importance of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Lou Williams – which anyone with a shred of basketball knowledge already knew. Pat Beverley, the heart and soul of the Clippers team, was injured during the game as well, while the Clippers’ second energizer bunny, Montrezl Harrell, sat out with an illness (a bug that damaged other Clippers as well). If Pat had played the entire game, things might have unfolded differently.
For Clippers fans, blowing another double-digit lead was taken as a sign of a larger trend, a sign of this team’s incompleteness or their lack of a killer mentality. I think there is some evidence that this team is not taking the regular season as seriously as the 2019 Clippers did – but this team has different expectations and goals than last year. Would it be nice if they went for the kill every single game and played as if their lives depended on it on a nightly basis? Sure! But that attitude is exceedingly rare in the NBA, and one of the key reasons why the ’19 Clips were such a special group. This year’s Clippers team doesn’t really laze around – they merely aren’t quite as locked in on a game-to-game basis as last year’s squad. For a team with an eye on the NBA Championship in June, that’s a more understandable attitude, even if it can be a frustrating one.
As for the rest of the team’s supposed weaknesses, the Clippers certainly aren’t perfect. Neither Kawhi nor Paul George (especially PG) have games tailored to create easy shots for others. That can lead to offense that sometimes bogs down into isolations and has high-turnover stretches. Lou Williams has struggled over the last month, and at age 33 and with tons of miles on him it’s at least worth considering that he should not be relied upon as heavily as he has been. Another playmaker and shot creator could probably help this team.
The Clippers also have some flaws at center – Ivica Zubac doesn’t always contribute offensively against top-tier defenses, while Montrezl Harrell doesn’t have the size or defensive instincts to quarterback a defense. There will be nights where those guys are outmatched. But again, no team is perfect. The Clippers have the best wing rotation in the entire NBA and a deep bench – strengths that would probably be mitigated somewhat if a move for a point guard or center was made. In professional sports, papering over one weakness usually results in another springing up. The Clippers could decide that a move for Jrue Holiday or a similar upgrade would be worth the cost – what they won’t do, however, is make such a move because of close losses to the Jazz, Rockets, or Thunder in late December.
Paul George is shooting 31.8% from the field and 28% from three over the past four games. He was not going to keep up his scorching hot shooting from the start of the season, but such a poor stretch from a team’s clear second-best player will result in some losses. Such shooting slumps are simply the course of life over an 82-game season. Even a longer cold stretch from Lou Williams (50.1% TS in December) isn’t necessarily cause for concern – shooting has high variability and one month rarely has much correlation with how the rest of the season will play out. When Lou and PG’s shooting comes around, a lot of the Clippers’ weaknesses offensively will disappear, even if the process remains the same.
Other issues such as turnovers in critical situations are a bit more long-lasting and therefore of a bit more concern. Still, while it’s not quite an excuse, one has to remember that Kawhi and Paul George have each missed quite a bit of time this season, as have other rotation players such as JaMychal Green, Rodney McGruder, and Landry Shamet. Chemistry and execution are developed over time, and this team has had precious little time to acclimate to one another as a complete unit. If the Clippers can maintain something approaching full health over the rest of the season, I’d be willing to bet that some of these turnover issues dwindle over time. Some of that will remain – again, PG and Kawhi are not natural playmaker or passers – but as the Clips grow accustomed to one another the silly miscues will reduce in frequency. If we are still having this conversation in March, with the playoffs approaching, that will be a different story. For right now, it’s simply too early to be casting aspersions on the Clippers’ title chances based on what we’ve seen.
The Clippers are 23-11 despite dealing with numerous injuries and playing through an extremely challenging schedule to start the season. They have top-10 rankings on both offense and defense, and their two best and most important players appear to be fully healthy. While there are some lingering concerns, and certainly things the Clippers need to work on, the bottom line is that not every game is important or needs to be parsed for some larger takeaway. Some games the other team just plays better, and that’s what happened yesterday. Regardless of one loss to the Jazz, or even last week’s defeats at the hands of the Thunder and Rockets, it’s hard to think that the Clippers are anywhere but in a good place right now.