The LA Clippers and Boston Celtics had themselves yet another nail-biter on Tuesday night, duking it out until the final minute in what is becoming a tradition of close games within the last two seasons between these teams. Boston got the better of LA in this matchup, winning by a close margin of 117-112.
The Clippers were forced to improvise just before the opening tip, as All-Star Kawhi Leonard was ruled out at the last minute with back spasms. Head Coach Tyronn Lue said after the game that Leonard began feeling pain during their game against the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday, and Leonard and the medical staff decided after Tuesday’s pregame warmups that he would not be able to play. Reggie Jackson was inserted for Leonard with almost no warning, and delivered under duress (more on him later).
LA fell just short in Leonard’s absence. Paul George was picking up the slack, contributing 27 points through three quarters and leading the Clippers to a one-point advantage heading into the final period. But, yet again, the magic wore off for LA down the stretch. They went nearly three minutes without scoring midway through the fourth quarter, giving up an 11-0 run to Boston and allowing them a lead that would prove impossible to overcome. Though the Clippers had multiple good looks in clutch time that could’ve kept them within striking distance, they failed to execute properly and eventually took their fifth loss in eight games.
PG Stagnates Late
Despite a valiant effort through three quarters, the Clippers’ main offensive engine struggled in the final twelve minutes. George went 2-10 in the fourth quarter, including 1-6 on threes. The only three he did hit was a clutch corner jumper with 11 seconds left to bring the Clippers within two points. The three seemed like the only shot George took in the fourth quarter that didn’t look rushed. It came after he moved without the ball and relocated, playing off of Reggie Jackson and forcing the defense to make a tough choice. His other clutch attempts, particularly a quick trigger three out of a timeout with 27 seconds left and the Clippers down four points, came too early in the shot clock and were heavily contested.
George seemed to forget what was working for him through the first three quarters. More and more, it seems that these late-game Clippers’ struggles are mental more than anything. However, it would also help if LA could find reliable offense beyond their jump shooting—the Clippers attempted just nine free throws for the game.
Reggie Jackson Stays Ready
Reggie Jackson has been the Clippers’ wild card so far this season. That is not to say he’s unpredictable. Quite the contrary—Jackson can fit in any scenario and produce steady offense regardless of who he’s covering for on a given night. Tonight, in place of Leonard, Jackson was fantastic, dropping a season-high 25 points to go along with seven assists. Jackson hit five of his six three-point attempts, and did a good job of attacking the basket (something the Clippers desperately need more of) and creating open shots for teammates.
With a veteran team like the Clippers, injuries and rest (not to mention health and safety protocols) are bound to continue popping up throughout the regular season. These absences are tough on the team, but they are opportunities for Jackson, and he’s been making the most of them all season.
Clippers Struggle Against Switching Defenses
One defensive wrinkle that will no-doubt become a bigger issue in the playoffs is the Clippers’ difficulty scoring against teams that switch in pick-and-roll (which is becoming most teams in the modern NBA).
Front offices have been building teams around this scheme for the better half of a decade now, with Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors being the inspiration. As three-point shooting becomes even more prevalent, teams need to construct rosters with like-sized players that can guard quick guards or bigger wings who do not allow shooters any air space after a screen has been set.
Fortunately for LA, their two biggest Western Conference rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, play mostly a drop system, as their bigs (Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic) have trouble guarding smaller players in space at the top of the key and are better suited as traditional rim protectors. However, the Lakers’ secret weapon of Anthony Davis at center could throw a wrench into all of this.
The Clippers will try to end the first half of the regular season on a high note when they face off against the Washington Wizards on Thursday, their last game before the All-Star break. It is unclear whether Kawhi Leonard will be cleared to play.