After another ugly loss, Tyronn Lue says Clippers ‘gotta wake the hell up’

Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Clippers
Philadelphia 76ers v Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES — "I feel good about this team. I feel confident. We just gotta wake the hell up.”

That was Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, trying to be optimistic after another ugly loss, echoing back to a 35-game stretch where his Clippers went 28-7 and looked as good as any team in the NBA. Inside the Clippers locker room, they still believe they are that team at their core.

"We'll get there but we just got to lock in and focus. I don't think our focus has been where it needs to be on certain occasions," Paul George said. "So we just got to lock in as a group."

Is it really as simple as focus? Can the Clippers just flip the switch?

Since the All-Star break the Clippers are 8-9 with a -1.2 net rating and a defense ranked 26th in the league — they haven't looked anything like a contender. Not when they lost to a struggling Hawks team without Trae Young and starting Vit Krejci. Not when they blew huge leads against the Lakers and Timberwolves (the Clippers hung on to beat Minnesota by one). Not when they got beat by a Pelicans team they are likely to meet in the first round of the playoffs — that win gave off the vibe New Orleans would win a series between the two (even with James Harden out that game).

Was it just focus Sunday afternoon when the Clippers were at home against a 76ers team without Joel Embiid, Kyle Lowry and Nic BatumPhiladelphia pulled away for a 121-107 win in a game that didn't feel that close. The final six minutes were garbage time.

"I mean, it's embarrassing when you lose to a team like this," Lue said. "I'm not saying they don't have great players over there, and Nick Nurse is a great coach, but they come in minus Joel Embiid and you know... and you're playing at home, you have to take advantage of those type of things, type of games. And so we know it is frustrating... showing the same thing over and over and not getting the results you want consistently.”

There is no single clean, easy answer to the question, "What happened to the Clippers?”

They get one piece of the puzzle back this week with Russell Westbrook returning from hand surgery — they miss his relentless energy. They also miss his pace. The Clippers are 24th in the league in pace since the All-Star break (95.65 possessions a game) and while the Clippers were never playing fast (bottom 10 in the league) they are more than three possessions per game slower after the All-Star break than before.

Another puzzle piece has been the Clippers' suddenly spotty decision-making, particularly under pressure.

Philly handled that pressure Sunday — the Clippers blitzed Tyrese Maxey when he came off picks, but Maxey quickly moved the ball, and guys like Tobias Harris and Kelly Oubre Jr. benefited with easy early buckets that got the 76ers rolling.

Philadelphia returned the favor and blitzed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (as Nick Nurse teams have long done), but the results differed.

"Tonight we didn't handle the blitz very well. We didn't make the right pass. We didn't get off of it fast enough," Lue said. "We blitzed Tyrese (Maxey) and he got off with a quick and that had us in scramble mode.

"We try to beat it, try to split it, try to…" Lue tried to put words to his frustration. "Just make the simple pass."

For all the offensive concerns, the Clippers still score enough to win — it's the defense that has to be better. That is where the focus and effort matter, where the good habits built during that 28-7 run seem to have disappeared.

George was asked if he was concerned about how the Clippers have played at home, and he brought it back to the other end of the court.

"Just about the way we play period. We've just got to be better defensively," George said.

"We know we've got to play better basketball going into the playoffs or it's going to be an early season," Lue said. "I've still got full confidence in his team and full confidence in what we can do, it's just going out and doing it every single night, not for 32 minutes, not 26 minutes, like 48 minutes of doing the right things, doing the right coverages not having as many game plan mistakes, getting back in transition.”

The Clippers showed for a couple of months that they know what to do, but they have gotten away from that. The question now is whether they can "wake the hell up" and start doing things right before the playoffs start in a few weeks.