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Clippings: Clippers bemoan defensive effort against Pelicans

The Clippers’ defensive output hasn’t matched their potential.

LA Clippers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

On paper, the Clippers look like one of the best defensive teams in the league. Their starting lineup has four former all-defense performers, three in the past two seasons, and a two-time former defensive player of the year. They have a center coming off the bench in Ivica Zubac who forced opponents to shoot 7.6 percentage points worse when he was the defender last season, second-best in the league.

The personnel is there for this team to be a juggernaut, and with a similar roster, it was a top 5 defense last year. But that type of effort simply hasn’t come consistently in 2020-21. Perhaps that’s a function of the Clippers missing Patrick Beverley — who has the best individual defensive rating of any LA rotation player — for extended stretches, or not having Kawhi Leonard and Paul George available together often enough. But that was also the case a year ago, and it didn’t affect the team’s numbers to this extent.

After the loss to New Orleans, so many numbers jumped off the page. The Pelicans got 48 shots in the paint, including 38 directly at the basket. In addition to making 36 of those attempts for 72 points in the paint, they also made 46.2 percent of their threes. It wasn’t like New Orleans surprised LA with the plan of attack; the Clippers knew the Pelicans would try to get into the paint, and they were powerless to stop it.

“I just think we didn’t play with the physicality that we needed to play with tonight,” coach Ty Lue said postgame. “If a guy is 13-for-16 from the field, one free throw, no threes, I mean, not putting him on the free-throw line, not even trying to get in his way to try to stop him. Until we show some toughness, until we show some willingness to play one-on-one, I think it’s gonna be tough for us, and we didn’t do that tonight.”

Leonard also said that the team’s defensive mindset wasn’t where it needed to be.

“I mean mental is everything, That is how you be consistent – a mentality. Knowing what spots to be at… yeah, it is all mental. Obviously being physical plays a role but yeah, we got to be there mentally first,” Leonard said.

There are moments when the Clippers dial in — like against the Warriors Thursday — and look like a contender. But those occasions are fewer and farther between. Last year, the Clippers didn’t have enough reps together to flip the switch when they got into the postseason. At what point do we worry about this year’s group having the same problem?

There are still more than 30 games for the Clippers to create that defensive identity, and they have a head start because of their talented roster. It’s up to them to make the same commitment on the defensive end as they have on offense, and do it regularly.

“(If) we want to have a chance at anything, you gotta be consistent. That’s what the great teams do, they’re consistent,” Leonard said Sunday. “That’s what makes a team great, players great, coaches great. A consistency of being, wanting to win, and doing pretty much the same habits of winning.”

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