The Clippers reached the nadir of their month-old season Monday during a loss to short-handed Denver that ended with guard Russell Westbrook’s heated exchange with fans in the final 30 seconds of a 113-104 defeat.
Security for both Crypto.com Arena and the Clippers and referee Lauren Holtkamp stood between Westbrook and the sideline as teammates and even opponents came over to try to defuse the back-and-forth, which included fans a few rows behind courtside seats gesturing toward the former NBA most valuable player, who is in his second season with his hometown Clippers.
“It’s just unfortunate fans think they can get away with saying anything and I won’t, personally, I won’t allow it,” Westbrook said. “I’ve took a lot of people saying anything and getting away with it, but I won’t stand for it.”
Westbrook would not specify what the fans said that led to his reaction, calling it inappropriate, and was adamant it crossed a line.
Russell Westbrook gets into an extended verbal exchange with a courtside heckler as Clippers lose 113-104 to Nuggets (minus Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon) in LA.
- A referee and players from both teams intervene to cool tensions. pic.twitter.com/3gmUceJOcZ
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) November 28, 2023
“If I’m responding, it’s the reason I’m responding and I’ll protect that always,” he said. “I mean it’s no different now. I tell people, man, when I was first started in the league, I maybe not so much, I used to get into it a little bit, but now having kids and understanding how important it is, not just myself but my last name. Understanding what Westbrook means, understanding how important that is to my dad, my grandfather, my family. It’s very important. It’s something I stand on and the respect is a big thing that I value.
“So the moment that line gets crossed, I won’t allow no more. I’ve stood for it for years and now my son is old enough to know what’s going on and understanding, he asking me, ‘Hey dad, what does that mean? What’s that?’ Now I got to stand on it and regardless of where I’m at, what’s going on, I’m always standing on that.”
The moment built from residual frustration during the game as the Clippers could not pull away from a Nuggets team without Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon, its three indispensable cogs of last season’s championship run.
Somehow the Clippers, despite playing at full strength, were missing even more.
Unable to generate balanced scoring among their starting star trio of Paul George, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, unable to hold on to a double-digit lead three times and unable to keep Nuggets understudies Reggie Jackson and DeAndre Jordan from looking like the stars they replaced, the Clippers (7-9) had no answers.
“Guys are frustrated offensively, but they should be frustrated defensively as well,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s when you should get mad. It’s on the defensive end, but I take full responsibility, like I said, and yeah, we’re just not going to play this style of basketball.”
The Clippers were 7-0 when holding a lead entering the fourth quarter. Now they’re 7-1.
Since Terance Mann joined the starting lineup Nov. 17, they had owned the NBA’s No. 1 defensive rating and one of its top-rated half-court defenses. Yet the Nuggets shredded it largely in the half-court, scoring only six points in transition. Nonetheless they outscored the Clippers by 20 in the fourth quarter, with Jackson (13 points) nearly equaling the 16 scored by the Clippers.
As Jackson, the immensely popular former Clipper traded by the team last season, dribbled out the clock, boos were few because so many fans already had left. Denver closed the game on a 10-2 run.
Jackson scored 35 points, making 15 of 19 shots, and had 13 assists. Six went to Jordan, the former Clippers center who had 21 points and 13 rebounds.
Improbably, the Nuggets’ hold on this series continues. Denver has won 11 of the last 12 games against the Clippers dating to 2021.
“It’s a frustrating loss but it’s one of those games where guys get the opportunities, they play extremely well and I thought in the absence the guys stepped up over there,” George said. “But a lot of this stuff we could have prevented. I thought we didn’t have just the energy there. It wasn’t well enough to compete.”
The circumstances of the Clippers’ struggle made this a head-scratching mystery. Denver (12-6) was playing on a second consecutive night and without its stars. The Clippers entered having won four of five games, describing themselves as getting more comfortable nearly one month since the roster-shaking trade for Harden.
But Harden did not appear comfortable in the fourth quarter while not attempting a shot in eight minutes, including turning down multiple catch-and-shoot opportunities, which he has acknowledged go against his style of playing an on-ball dominant role in Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. Fans could be heard imploring Harden to shoot in the final minutes.
Harden took only three shots in the first half, the same number as reserve center Daniel Theis, and finished three for seven with 11 points and four assists. It was his third consecutive game taking nine or fewer shots.
“Habit is a thing and I think he’s just, his rhythm has been so accustomed to off the bounce and creating space and catching rhythm off his dribble that it is different now in catch-and-shoot situations,” George said. “I just think the more reps he gets at it, the more he sees in-game that those catch-and-shoots are available, I think more in rhythm he’ll be. But it’s an adjustment.”
George, who averaged nearly 28 points in his previous seven games, endured his otherwise superlative season’s most difficult offensive performance, scoring six points while making two of 13 shots. He added eight rebounds and four assists. It was his first game this season without a three-pointer.
Leonard looked at his most comfortable as a scorer during the first half, but though he finished with 31 points, he needed 26 shots. Ivica Zubac added 23 points and 14 rebounds. The Clippers had 16 offensive rebounds, but the Nuggets had 18.
“Nasty offensively, too slow, too methodical and only taking 20 threes, not really getting to what we wanted to get into,” Lue said.
To say the issues were only offensive, however, would have overlooked how the Clippers’ defense against pick and rolls made Jackson look like Murray and Jordan like Jokic. Jackson scored 18 points in the first half by finding open seams and charging toward the basket. When his drives were closed off, Jackson often lobbed or dished to Jordan. As this was happening, there was often a Nugget cutting unchecked along the baseline, ready for a layup.
The Clippers found a way to avoid such possessions in the fourth quarter by repeatedly fouling Jordan, a 47% free-throw shooter for his career, in the Hack-a-Jordan strategy the Clippers once loathed when the 7-footer was on their roster. He made five of 11 free throws. The strategy was a last-ditch effort to stop a loss whose foundation had been laid much earlier, however.
The 11-point lead they held entering the fourth quarter was by then an almost forgotten memory. It was all over but the shouting.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.