If NBA games only lasted 44 minutes instead of the usual 48, the LA Clippers would have earned arguably their most impressive win of the season on Sunday afternoon. But as they often do in tight games, those final four minutes ended up deciding who would win and who would lose — and the Clippers, after leading by as many as six points earlier in the frame — fell 100-105 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Clippers clung to a 93-87 advantage roughly halfway through the fourth quarter when the Bucks began to make their push. LA's lead was then trimmed down to just two less than a minute later, but back-to-back buckets from Marcus Morris Sr. and Kawhi Leonard put the Clippers up 100-96 with 4:01 to play.
With Lawler's Law invoked, the team's long-time fans had to feel good about the closing stretch. However, LA would go scoreless for the remainder of the afternoon, as Milwaukee locked-in on both ends of the floor and finished the game on a 9-0 run.
As poorly as the Clippers played on offense, the Bucks deserve plenty of credit for the way they played on both ends of the floor in those final moments. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue was the first to praise Giannis Antetokounmpo for his individual effort.
"I thought when Giannis took over down the stretch, I thought he got whatever he wanted," Lue said after the game. "Got downhill, got into the paint, finished a lot, made his free throws. Offensively, I thought we took a couple bad shots that we shouldn't have taken."
It was a close and exciting contest throughout, featuring 11 lead changes and nine ties before the Bucks ultimately took control. The Clippers, winless against Milwaukee since November 2018, will have to wait several more weeks before Antetokounmpo's squad visits Los Angeles.
Until then, let's take a closer look at some of what stood out in the loss.
Struggles in Transition
If there's one thing that Lue has harped on more than anything else this season, it's been the Clippers' struggles to play in transition. The issues have been more obvious on offense, but LA has been just as bad in its transition defense.
On Sunday, the Clippers were outscored 22-2 in fast break points. LA converted just one of its four opportunities in transition, while Milwaukee converted all but one of its 11.
This isn't just a one-time thing, either. Over their last five games, the Clippers have been outscored 86-39 in fast break points and were held under 10 in three.
LA has been able to survive because it has one of the league's most elite halfcourt offenses, but the defense continues to be a problem. Opposing teams aren't getting a ton of fast break opportunities, which is a plus, but they have converted 37 of their last 62 opportunities over the last five games — a success rate of about 60%.
It's hard to say what exactly it will take for the Clippers to clean up their issues in transition other than playing a little quicker on both ends of the floor, but if this remains a weak spot for the rest of the season, teams will be more than capable of exploiting it in the playoffs.
Serge Ibaka Reigns Supreme in the Third Quarter
The LA Clippers have played their best basketball in the third quarter this season, consistently throwing the first punch out of the break and adjusting on both ends of the floor.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the third quarter was the only frame the Clippers won on Sunday.
The Clippers were outscored by 14 in the first, second and fourth quarters but exploded for 33 points in the third. One player who was key to the effort was Serge Ibaka, who recorded 12 of his 15 points and six of his 11 rebounds in the frame.
Ibaka was especially potent from three-point range in the period, cashing in on two of three attempts from beyond the arc. He shot with plenty of confidence from deep throughout, taking a season-high seven attempts from outside.
Ibaka has the potential to be one of LA's most potent scorers this season, though he's been timid at times above the break. More often than not, Ibaka will pump-fake out of a relatively good look and drive into the paint instead, where he hasn't been nearly as efficient.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Ibaka is shooting just 39% in the short midrange this season, which puts him in the 35th percentile among bigs. That number jumps to 73% (78th percentile) at the rim and 63% (96th percentile) in the long mid, and he's still shooting around 37% from beyond the arc.
Ibaka makes his money staying deep, stepping just inside the three-point line, or getting to the rim. Settling for short midrange jumpers and hooks just hasn't been working for him.
If Ibaka can alter his shot selection a bit and fight to get inside the restricted area on offense, he'll have a much easier time scoring the basketball.
Serious Lack of Freebies
The LA Clippers have had one of the lowest free-throw attempt rates in the NBA all season long, a discrepancy that really showed up in Sunday's loss.
LA attempted just seven free throws in their loss to Milwaukee, while the Bucks took 22. Had the Clippers been able to draw just a few more fouls, there's a good chance that this game would've gone their way — but that's been an issue all year.
The Clippers are attempting the sixth-fewest free throws and drawing the fewest number of fouls per game on the year, which is unfortunate considering the team also ranks first in free throw percentage.
Coach Lue has drawn attention to the team's need to get into the paint and draw contact, and while he's surely come up with some new strategies to accomplish that task, it hasn't shown up on the court just yet.
LA's players seem to be growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of foul calls they've gotten as well, so perhaps we'll see a more aggressive offense take form after the All-Star break.