The Clippers found themselves trailing 30-15 after the first quarter; with four minutes remaining in the second, they were down 44-21; by halftime, it was 54-32. They were done, cooked, written off for the night. You’d be forgiven if you changed the channel in favor of the final moments of Pelicans-Grizzlies or even the early minutes of Knicks-Jazz. Either one promised to be a far better product than what the Clippers were putting out.
But instead of folding, the Clippers began the second half with the kind of run only the most complete teams tend to muster when trailing by close to as many points as they’d scored to that point. L.A. outscored the Mavericks 33-14 in the third quarter to bring the game within four, and they would ultimately take a five-point lead in the final frame.
Sure, they’d leave losers — that’s what happens when 1) you fall into such a huge hole to begin with, and 2) when Luka Doncic plays for the other team — but to fight their way back into the game in the first place was an accomplishment.
When it comes to the Clippers’ record, Tuesday’s 103-101 result shows up as a loss. But it’s the comeback that stands out from the game, not the fact that they trailed by as many as 25 or let a miraculous win slip away in the final minutes. And it’s not even so much the comeback itself, but the manner it which the Clippers made it happen: by using every last man in the rotation as a cog in the machine, not just one star leading the charge with every other player serving as a desperation option in the background.
Paul George, that one star, still leads the charge. He played the entire second-half on Tuesday, scoring 17 of his 23 points in the final two periods and finishing with a half-high plus-20 point differential. But George also turned it over 10 times, tied for the most by any player in the league this season with Trae Young. That required those around him, like Nicolas Batum (22 points), Marcus Morris Sr. (18), and John Wall (17), to help handle the offensive burden.
Other rotation stalwarts like Terance Mann and Ivica Zubac led the defensive effort and turned up the intensity. You might point to George as the offense’s catalyst, but he was hardly working alone.
It’s this approach, and how regularly they seem to deploy it, that should inspire confidence in the Clippers’ ability to continue climbing out of an early-season slump and back into the tier of title contenders, where so many assumed they’d find themselves at the start of this season. (And as much as talking about those expectations might feel like beating a dead horse at this point, this poor pony is very much alive.)
Some of these winning factors likely aren’t sustainable. For one, if the season ended today, Marcus Morris Sr. would be a member of the vaunted 50-40-90 club. (Place your bets on that lasting through the season with caution.)
Ivica Zubac has figured out a way to be a traditional big that doesn’t hinder his team’s spacing, even though he doesn’t possess the ability to space the floor himself. Does that last or does he eventually start getting the looks Rudy Gobert is getting in Minnesota?
Also likely true, though? That many of the elements leading to their early struggles won’t last through the rest of the season. Reggie Jackson, in particular, has failed to live up to expectations as the point guard Ty Lue entrusted with the starting job entering this season. He’s shooting a ghastly 29 percent from three; that should level out.
Paul George — who continues to serve as the Clippers’ de facto point guard — is averaging just 0.7 more assists per game (4.6) than he is turnovers (3.9). He’s second in the league in turnovers with 54. You can thank his hefty usage for that, and once Kawhi Leonard returns, George should be less prone to forcing it. (More on Leonard in a moment).
The Clippers better hope so. Thus far, his lackadaisical decision making has bled into the fabric of the team’s identity and soured the start many thought would be far sweeter when the season began. As a team, they rank 26th in the NBA in assists per game (21.9) and 25th in turnovers (16.3). They have the league’s third-worst assist-to-turnover ratio (1.34) and continue to be more prone to making unforced errors than they are creating opportunities for one another.
And yet somehow, the Clippers have managed to turn things around... for the most part. They’re still figuring it out, to be sure. The endless rotation that was lauded all summer feels muddled at times. Head coach Tyronn Lue likely won’t give 12-14 players consistent nightly minutes for much longer. But the team that is currently 8-7 hardly looks like the team that lost five of its first seven games to start the season.
They’re 6-3 since Halloween, good for the league’s sixth-best record over that stretch. They’ve been slightly better at taking care of the ball since then, too, as they average just 15.4 giveaways per game (15th in the NBA). And they have a positive net rating (2.6), up three points from their season average (-1.6).
For better or for worse, they also hardly look like a team that is lost in translation without its presumptive top star, Kawhi Leonard, who remains sidelined with right knee stiffness. Leonard has played in just two of the team’s 15 games this season, scoring 12.5 points per contest and hardly making much of an impact in his limited minutes.
Not to shortchange one of the league’s best all-around players, but perhaps the Clippers are so comfortable playing without him because that’s what they’ve been used to since he signed with the team back in 2019. Since then, he’s missed 130 of the Clippers 241 total regular season games, or 54 percent of the team’s games in three years.
It’s possible, in literally only one way, that Leonard’s absence has benefitted the Clippers’ overall development as a group. It has indirectly allowed Morris Sr. the opportunity to rid himself of his tendency to force it offensively, a woe that had cost him his dependability at previous career stops. Mann continues to discover new ways to impact the game in his Herbert Jones-like role — the playstyle that Leonard all-but perfected in his early years in the league.
The counter to this? That Leonard missing extended time is exactly why the Clippers are 8-7 and not 11-4, or 13-2. A healthy Kawhi offers 25-plus points and defensive tenacity from day one; no one on this roster has been able to provide that consistently so far this season. The bright side, one that the Clippers can continue to hang their hats on, is that they’ve been able to combine efforts from multiple players enough to masquerade as that of a star. It’s an approach that can work as a winning formula.
Just one question remains: For how long?