No one can be sure yet what these Clippers eventually will become, whether their injuries will recede, whether continuity ever will emerge, and whether that first championship they aspire to will materialize.
But on an otherwise nondescript Tuesday in November, on the way to an 18-point comeback in the final 15 minutes of a 118-112 win in Moda Center, they looked like a team that has yet to lose its fight even as it has lost numerous teammates to the injury report, losing time in the process.
This comeback looked like backup guard Norman Powell ripping into the lane with his dribble, finishing with layups at will and scoring 22 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers looked like rookie forward Moussa Diabate, who entered Tuesday’s game with six career NBA minutes and awoke at 6:30 a.m. in a Los Angeles hotel after a previous night’s G League game, becoming a whirlwind of arms and rebounds and a critical block while playing all 12 fourth-quarter minutes.
And they looked like Reggie Jackson, the point guard who embodied his team’s stark change on the way to improving to 13-9 overall — and 8-4 in “clutch” scenarios, in games within five points in the final five minutes. After laying prone on the court, having hit his back and head on the hardwood during a second-quarter fall, Jackson played the entire second half and finished with 24 points.
He walked to the locker room after the victory yelling to no one in particular, “Boy, am I going to feel that one on the plane.”
After outscoring Portland 36-17 in the final quarter to survive even on a night when one of the Clippers’ top offensive options, Marcus Morris Sr., made only three of 13 shots, it will be a happy ride to Salt Lake City for another game Wednesday.
The Clippers are not who they thought they would be right now. But “that energy, that effort, that hustle, that togetherness is the level that we got to be at no matter who’s on the floor,” Powell said. “Kawhi [Leonard] and [Paul George] out, Luke [Kennard] out, it doesn’t matter. We got the guys in here that can compete and win every single night if we play that way.”
Powell pumped his right fist as the final seconds ticked off. This was the version of Powell, who is at his most efficient when driving to the rim and drawing fouls, the Clippers wanted when they traded for the guard and Robert Covington last February. Since scoring in double figures twice in his first eight games, Powell has done that 11 times in his last 12, punctuated by Tuesday’s outburst off the bench.
“It was good to be back, I got a warm reception with the fans,” Powell said in his first game in Portland since the trade. “I kept hearing [fans] on the bench, ‘We miss you Norm, we miss you Norm, wish you were here.’”
They likely wished he were somewhere else late, however, his 22 points the most in a fourth quarter by a Clipper since 1996-97, according to the team.
At the end of the first half, there was no indication Jackson would be available to continue playing after going up for a layup and falling hard on his back, with his head whipping back and hitting the court. He stayed down as play continued but as the third quarter started, he warmed up under the watch of the Clippers’ performance staff, put his protective eyewear back on and helped ignite the rally.
“Reggie is a baller and he wants to play at all times,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
Lue said Jackson underwent testing at halftime and “was great.” Asked if he underwent concussion testing, Jackson said no, adding that he felt the band of his glasses cushioned his head to a degree.
“My back took a big part of the fall,” he said. “That was probably the best part for me to hit the ground. I felt good after. A little tight but once I started moving around, felt OK to play.”
The comeback also featured an unlikely contributor in Jason Preston, the backup point guard who sat out last season with a foot injury and has spent much of this season in the G League with Diabate earning repetitions. Preston scored his first NBA basket on a three-pointer in the first quarter only hours after arriving with Diabate on a flight that landed Tuesday afternoon. Preston was needed because John Wall, who typically handles the bench offense, did not play because of left knee injury management, continuing the team’s practice of not playing Wall on consecutive nights.
The Clippers gave up 37 points to Anfernee Simons and 32 to Jerami Grant, but focused their defensive efforts on that duo late in the game, forcing players such as Justise Winslow and Josh Hart to blunt their rally. It never happened.
Trailing 110-108 with 2:35 remaining, Jackson’s drive into the key set up a go-ahead three-pointer by Nicolas Batum, the former Trail Blazer who spent his first seven seasons in Portland. They were his only points, and they arrived with maximum impact.
After a Powell layup pushed the Clippers’ lead to 115-112 with 1:35 remaining, Diabate blocked a Simons shot. Portland never scored again.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.