With Luke Kennard entering health and safety protocols just before tipoff, the Clippers injury report reached nine players deep, including seven regular rotation players. Still, the shorthanded Clippers squad fought back to defeat the Brooklyn Nets 120-116 Saturday night.
The Clippers started strong, but lost steam in the first quarter as the injury-depleted roster showed its weariness. The lineup that closed the first quarter featured five players who, as recently as two weeks ago, did not hold consistent spots in the rotation (including three “hardship-exception” ten-day contracts). The Clippers, who led by as many as ten points, headed into the second quarter trailing 30-29.
Relentless defensive intensity, however, spearheaded by Eric Bledsoe’s aggressive pace and Reggie Jackson’s efficient scoring, resulted in a back and forth second quarter. Kevin Durant continued to do Kevin Durant things, en route to 16 first half points, but the Clippers trailed by just four points heading into the half.
One key takeaway from this game: Amir Coffey may have just defended, hustled, and overall competed his way into more minutes, even when the rest of the roster is healthy. He and Justise Winslow, who drew the Durant assignment for much of the game, performed impressively, or at least as well as you can expect them to considering who they’re guarding.
Bledsoe’s confidence was also undeniable, whether it’s when he’s driving into the lane with his pedal to the metal, pulling up from 25 or 26 feet, or picking up James Harden as soon as he crosses the half-court line. In parts of this game, when the Nets stars tried to end the game early, the Clippers backcourt simply refused to back down. Bledsoe’s urgency, defensive instincts, and attacking mentality could be felt throughout the entire team and game plan. He continued his stellar play of late, and ended tonight’s game with 27 points, three steals, and two blocks.
Slight turnover trouble from the Nets was nullified by their domination on the glass. The Nets, who seemingly were plagued by butterfingers, only registered four more turnovers. On the other end, however, they pulled in 14 more rebounds.
And the Clippers were once again unable to escape the James Harden experience. Harden, who had 24 points, 11 assists, and nine rebounds through the first three quarters, left his fingerprints throughout the entire Nets offense. In his fourth consecutive game with a triple double, Harden finished the game with 34 points, 13 assists, and 12 rebounds.
Patty Mills’ outside shooting was also a lethal weapon for the Clippers to contend with. After getting into some foul trouble, however, he exited the game with 4:47 to go, with 17 points on 55.6% shooting from deep. His fouling out provided the perfect opportunity for the Clippers to capitalize on. And capitalize, they did.
I’ll admit, I thought to myself at the beginning of this game, “For the Clippers to win this game tonight, they’re not just going to have to want to win, the Nets are going to have to be okay with losing.” On the second half of an international back-to-back, with an injury list that could have functioned as its own, nine-man rotation, facing a team as good as the Harden and Durant-led Nets, the odds were stacked against this Clippers team.
Aggression on both ends of the floor, late in the fourth, however, led to a 15-3 run that suddenly tied the game with 2:30 to go. A Winslow layup, with 1:03 left, put the Clippers up by one. This late push and momentum shift held through in a nail-biting end of game, which featured a couple of crucial free throws missed from both teams. To the Nets credit, they did not fall victim to the “trap game” mentality either. They were not okay with losing. They wanted this game. The Clippers, however, just wanted it that much more. This, and good old-fashioned execution, won an insanely fun game for the good guys.
The Clippers, who will still be shorthanded but no less competitive, will look to build on this momentum Monday night, at home, against Minnesota.