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Clippings: The starting lineup hasn’t yet come to play

The Clippers are getting off to terrible starts in the first and third quarters.

Memphis Grizzlies v LA Clippers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

During the 2020-21 regular season, the second-most used four-man lineup (371 minutes in total) for the Clippers was Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac.

If that grouping rings a bell, it’s because it’s the fulcrum of the current starting unit. The Clippers took the returning lineup that had played the most together, added Eric Bledsoe and voila, as much continuity as possible for a team without its starting small forward and point guard from a year ago.

Except the new starting lineup — the one that Ty Lue was so committed to during training camp that they ran it out for opening night despite not playing together at all during preseason — has been something of a disaster so far. That five-man group has played 20 minutes together over two games and been outscored by 21 points. The Clipper would lose games by 50 points if that pace were extrapolated over a full 48 minutes.

The starters are scoring just fine, but they’re getting housed on defense to the tune of 163.6 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. For context, Sacramento had the worst defense in NBA history last season with a defensive rating of 117.6.

“Our first unit has to do a better job of setting the tone defensively, having a defensive mindset,” Lue said after the Memphis loss. “I don’t think we’re there right now, we’re not there yet. But it’s coming. And with guys being out for most of preseason and in and out, that’s to be expected. But we got to have the mindset and approach that we want to get stops coming out of the first and third quarter.”

Pretty much everything is going wrong defensively for the starters. Opponents are shooting lights out, including 90 percent at the rim and 100 percent on corner threes. If the other team misses, they’re getting offensive rebounds on over a third of their possessions, and the Clippers also can’t stop fouling. There have been some highlight defensive plays, but more often poor communication, missed rotations, and a general lack of execution.

It’s a small sample so far, and it bears repeating that the first time this group played together was in the opener against Golden State. Jackson seemed optimistic that things would look better after the Clippers developed some continuity.

“For us, we felt we’re a very good team once we get things clicking and on the same page. We know how important health is to us. So it’s a tough balance,” Jackson said Saturday. “But I think the more time that we get together, the more continuity that we build, we’re going to get back to our usual selves. I think we can be scary, but the biggest thing you have to establish is a defensive presence and making sure that we play on that end.”

Lue showed a willingness to experiment with his rotations throughout last season, even before injuries forced him to, but he will likely let this starting group get a few more games under its belt before making a change. Until then, the Clippers have to prove that their faith in this lineup is justified, if a little premature.

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