The LA Clippers rested most of their key players, and then some, on Friday in their penultimate regular season game against the Houston Rockets, but welcomed back a key reserve. While there were individual performances to appreciate, the reserve-heavy Clippers could not get the win at Toyota Center, losing 122-115.
Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Patrick Beverley, Terance Mann and Reggie Jackson all sat out this game entirely, and while LA wanted to win this game like they always do, at this stage in the season, the priority is to stay healthy over winning games after clinching a playoff berth, and that’s what this team went for on the night.
Only two regular starters were on the court for tip-off for the Clippers, with Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac joined by Rajon Rondo, Luke Kennard and rookie Jay Scrubb, making his first career NBA start on the night.
It seemed like a good omen when Zubac — who is not known for his 3-point scoring prowess — hit a shot from deep inside the first two minutes, the center grinning after burying the rare attempt from downtown. He played little more than three minutes of the game, to keep him fresh.
Serge Ibaka made his long-awaited return to the floor in the 1st quarter for LA, the big man looking for a healthy run to find his feet before the playoffs.
The Clippers went ahead by as many as 11 points, but they finished the 1st quarter with a 33-30 lead, Kennard leading the way with nine points.
The 2nd quarter remained close, and the Rockets grabbed a narrow lead. Kelly Olynyk hit a 3-pointer with about 30 seconds to go to take Houston up by six points, but Rondo made a heady play with the final 3.2 seconds of the 1st half, saving the game clock by not touching the ball until after he crossed halfcourt, then driving through Houston’s defense to score a layup at the buzzer to finish with the Clippers down by four points, 73-69.
With Lue opting to give his deep roster players major minutes, the Rockets pulled further ahead in the 3rd quarter. It finished with Houston leading by a dozen, 105-93, neither team really big on playing defense, the Rockets shooting 48 percent from 3-point range through three quarters.
Even with the Rockets leading in the 4th quarter, the empty-bench Clips still pushed down the stretch, Scrubb getting in a rhythm and scoring important buckets, posting 17 on the night, second on the team behind Kennard’s 23. LA chipped away at the deficit down the stretch, but the gap was too big and Houston, who have had a miserable season, picked up a relatively rare win before they go on summer vacation soon.
There’s just one game left in the regular season for the Clippers, Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder in OKC. That was their regular season finale opponent last season too, coincidentally, and Mann had a breakout game in that one. Will another player have a great night en route to the playoffs? Stay tuned.