Attempting to persuade official Scott Foster that he had not, in fact, hit the arm of Lakers guard Alex Caruso and deserved his third foul, Beverley pleaded his innocence while inching closer and closer, until they were far closer than six feet.
“I hit the ball, man!” Beverley said, his words heard clearly throughout the Arena, the gym’s emptiness no longer filled by a thumping soundtrack. “Oh my God, bro!”
For Beverley and the Clippers, it was not a one-off moment of frustration during a 103-101 loss that, at times, reflected the roster’s lack of continuity ever since it arrived in Florida, three weeks ago.
Playing without the instant offense of bench stars Lou Williams and energy of his running mate Montrezl Harrell, the Clippers fell behind by 12 points, failing to make a three-pointer and committing 13 fouls during a choppy first quarter. Six players were called for two fouls apiece in the opening quarter.
Their frustration extended until the final play. Paul George was left asking officials for a foul after his go-ahead three-point attempt fired from the top of the arc in the final seconds misfired.
The Clippers’ first of eight seeding games was, indeed, an indication of how far they have to go until they regain their form from March, when they tore into second place in the Western Conference standings behind a finally healthy roster.
“We were short-handed and we made too many mistakes,” coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s a good lesson for your team. You can’t make as many mistakes as we made in one game and be short-handed. If you don’t have a guy you have to execute.”
It wasn’t uncommon to see players attempting to fix an on-court miscommunication by talking to one another animatedly on the bench, such as second-half interaction between Beverley and center Joakim Noah.
But Thursday was also a reminder that the Clippers’ depth and star power can compensate for the timing and togetherness they couldn’t gain when their 15-man roster was down to 10 last week. And their second-half turnaround, even while short-handed, suggested what the roster will be able to do when it gets Williams and Harrell, and their 37 combined points per game, back.
That Beverley-Noah moment? It ended with a fist bump. George later attempted to throw a knockout, making three three-pointers during the third quarter as the Clippers opened on a 14-1 scoring run. He finished with 30 points.
“I loved the way PG played,” Rivers said.
Kawhi Leonard scored 28, his poor-shooting scrimmages forgotten as he made three three-pointers and got to the free-throw line 13 times.
In the first quarter, he sized up LeBron James with a between-the-legs dribble and burst past him for a layup.
“I don’t think it was a continuity thing,” George said of the first half. “I think it was we were in foul trouble. The game was a little out of hand to start off. But they were the aggressors. They attacked us defensively. They pressured us.”
The Clippers clogged the paint for Anthony Davis and held James to 16 points on six-for-19 shooting. Davis would exact his revenge late in the third quarter with three-pointers on consecutive possessions for a one-point Lakers lead, but the Lakers were outscored by three points with Davis on the court, and four with James.
“We are missing those guys, those are two big, key players for us,” Leonard said of Williams, who will miss the first two games while in quarantine, and Harrell, who left July 17 and has yet to return. “We miss them but overall I thought we fought all night.”
With 5:23 left in the third quarter, Beverley was flattened to the floor after shooting beyond the three-point arc after baiting Davis into a foul. There was no need to talk with an official. He popped back up, a smirk across his face, and made two of his three foul shots for an eight-point Clippers lead. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, watching from a raised, glassed-in platform two seats from league commissioner Adam Silver, could be seen cheering from behind a blue Clippers-branded mask.
Without his usual rotations, Rivers made do by plugging in other combinations he might not have otherwise. Patrick Patterson, rarely used when the Clippers roster was at its healthiest in March, scored only five points but provided stability throughout his 22 minutes. Two-way player Amir Coffey and JaMychal Green combined for three three-pointers in the final minutes of the third quarter.
“We had every opportunity to still win the game,” Rivers said. “That would have been a sweet win for us for what our guys have gone through.”
Their third-quarter revival could not save them, however.
They were undone by mistakes that served as a cautionary tale, because they were the type that could undo the Clippers even when they return to full strength.
They turned the ball over 20 times and failed to piece together enough defensive stops late in the fourth quarter to finish a comeback that had seen their six-point deficit with fewer than four minutes left whittled to one just two minutes later.
And then, with 12.8 seconds remaining and the game tied at 101 points, came the Clippers' final frustration. James collected the rebound off his own miss for a go-ahead score. Five Clippers were near the rim, but none had boxed James out.