Clippers and Nets' superstar battle comes down to defense, and close call, at the end

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Andrew Greif
·5 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams, center, shoots as Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris, left, and guard Bruce Brown defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Feb. 21, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Clippers guard Lou Williams pulls up for a shot over Nets guard Joe Harris in the second half Sunday at Staples Center. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

After toppling the NBA’s hottest team, and the owner of its best record, the Clippers left Staples Center on Friday night with the “good confidence,” as coach Tyronn Lue said, that came from seeing the possibilities of their raw potential come into sharper focus.

But there was a reason why, on Sunday afternoon, Lue spoke in a tempered tone about his team before facing another of the league’s top contenders. It was the same reason why the Clippers left the arena hours later unhappy with what they’d just witnessed.

If Friday’s win against Utah showed a glimpse of the Clippers’ top-end potential, their 112-108 loss to Brooklyn revealed how far they still have to go, and what it could take, to capture it.

Two questions into his postgame videoconference, Kawhi Leonard walked out after addressing the offensive foul called on him with eight seconds remaining that wiped out a game-tying layup.

“My take from it is if we gonna pretty much play bully ball at the end of the game, let both sides play it,” Leonard said. “But they didn’t call it, so good defense.”

The call seemed dubious after the Nets’ James Harden appeared to hook his arm underneath Leonard’s, then flail backward as Leonard gathered for a shot.

“I haven’t really got into the flopping game, but in today’s game, it’s smart, you know what I mean?” Clippers star Paul George said minutes later, the empty chair briefly occupied by Leonard next to him. “They control the refs. They got the refs in they pocket, so, you know, kudos to the guys who are great at that part of the game.”

The whistle was a missed opportunity — but only one of many, long before the final eight seconds, that held back the Clippers from claiming what would have been a second consecutive signature win.

For every opportunity the Clippers created in clawing back from a 15-point deficit, with Nets star Kevin Durant watching from the sideline because of an injured hamstring, there was a mistake that undercut their rally. The contrasts reflected a team brimming with talent but still a work in progress.

The Clippers (22-10) made four more three-pointers, grabbed 12 more rebounds and matched the firepower of Harden’s 37 points and Kyrie Irving’s 28 with 34 points from George and 29 from Leonard.

Yet when Leonard looked beseechingly toward his bench after the offensive foul, twirling his index finger in the NBA’s sign for a video review, there was just one problem: Lue had used his challenge nearly three minutes earlier — unsuccessfully — in hopes of overturning another offensive foul.

There also was no recourse for 17 turnovers that became 27 points for the Nets, or the way 6-foot-4 Nets guard Bruce Brown seemed to live inside the paint, his back cuts fooling the Clippers’ big men assigned to guarding him time and again.

“They’re not even a great turnover team,” Lue said. “That was the game right there.”

The giveaways and lack of rim protection undercut Lue’s stated pregame goal of limiting the Nets’ easy opportunities. Brooklyn took 20 shots at the rim before halftime and finished with 60 points in the paint.

“Some of those shots at the rim,” center Ivica Zubac said, “we got to do a better job of stopping the ball first.”

Brooklyn (20-12), which has won six consecutive games, had no doubt who would take the final shot because the Clippers sat George with 2 minutes 50 seconds to play after he’d reached his minutes limit in his second game back from a foot injury.

Trailing by double digits early in the fourth quarter, the Clippers chose to insert him earlier than usual in an attempt to spark a comeback, Lue said. It worked. George scored 12 points in the final quarter. The decision also meant he wasn’t available to finish it. With obvious frustration, Lue paused before confirming that he’d had to pull George, calling it the right thing to do for the star’s long-term health.

George acknowledged the time off has left his ball-handling out of sync, as he committed six turnovers. But after 33 minutes, he called any lingering discomfort from his injury “an afterthought.”

“I was ready to go,” he said. “I wanted to keep going.”

As he did against Utah, Lue played a small lineup in the final three minutes. Going small has its risks, however, and one was borne out when DeAndre Jordan tapped in a putback with 11 seconds to play to give Brooklyn a 110-108 lead.

Three weeks after the Nets beat the Clippers in part by slowing the ball movement that is one of the hallmarks of Lue’s tenure thus far, their switching defense again left the Clippers frustrated despite L.A. shooting 46% and making 42% of its threes. Outside of George and Leonard, who combined to shoot 21 for 38, the rest of the team shot 38%.

“It was like we couldn’t get to the paint,” Lue said. “We couldn’t get by our man, they switched everything and we had matchups we wanted and I just felt like we couldn’t attack them.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
LA Clippers
-304-8.5O 227.5
Memphis
+240+8.5U 227.5