The Clippers will enter the All-Star break on what might be their lowest note of the season, as Thursday night’s loss to the Washington Wizards marks the first time all year that LA has lost three games in a row. The Clippers will have to sulk in this fact for a week, as they won’t play again until next Thursday.
What makes this losing streak particularly frustrating is the way in which the Clippers were once again unable to execute in late-game situations. With just seven seconds to go in regulation, LA was down by one point, 118-117. They fouled Wizards Forward Rui Hachimura in order to extend the game, and the second-year wing made the first free throw before missing the second. Despite having no timeouts, LA would’ve been in a good position to get a quality look off in time, and it wouldn’t have even had to be a three-pointer. There was just one problem—they didn’t secure the rebound off of the missed free throw. Wizards Guard Russell Westbrook came crashing in from behind the three-point line to tip the ball out of Ivica Zubac’s hands before All-Star Bradley Beal secured the loose ball and dribbled the clock out. It was anticlimactic, to say the least.
But some credit should be given to the Clippers despite the loss. They were down 113-106 with 46 seconds left, and they clawed their way back with some tough shot-making and calculated fouling. Nicolas Batum hit a spot-up three before drawing a foul on another three-point attempt, and Kawhi Leonard hit a dead-eye pull-up three in transition. In between these shots, LA made it a point to target Russell Westbrook when playing the foul game, as he is shooting just 58% from the free throw line this season (though he did make three of four during this late stretch). Beyond the blown rebound with seven seconds left, the Clippers did everything right in crunch time. While a loss is a loss, this execution was a good sign that they’re trending in the right direction.
But let’s zoom out further—LA probably shouldn’t have even been in this clutch situation to begin with. With just over a minute to go in the first half, the Clippers led the Wizards by 16 points, 61-45. They could’ve put this inferior Wizards team (one that LA blew out 135-116 just nine days ago) to bed early, but an unacceptable amount of turnovers (17 for the game) and and inability to play defense without fouling (Washington attempted 42 free throws) gave the Wizards a fighting chance, and they capitalized on the opportunity. Their star backcourt of Westbrook and Beal combined for 60 points, going to the free throw line 30 times. The Clippers got complacent towards the end of the second quarter, and gave up an easy win that would’ve lifted their spirits heading into the All-Star break.
Wizards deny Kawhi
An interesting wrinkle that is worth examining amidst this game of runs: Washington did a good job of denying Kawhi Leonard the basketball, particularly in the fourth quarter, where Leonard attempted only three shots and was unable to get to the free throw line at all.
It’s true—LA is going to see a lot more of these tactics come playoff time. Thursday’s situation might not be entirely indicative of what the postseason will be like, as Washington was able to pay even more attention to Leonard with Paul George not playing (more on that later). But if teams can figure out a way to keep Leonard off the block or in any sort of midrange position where he seems to constantly have a mismatch, it’s going to bog down the Clippers’ offense quite a bit. Thursday’s game had quite a few possessions end with Patrick Beverley or Reggie Jackson taking tough, contested shots with the shot clock winding down—not exactly ideal. This trend could be seen as further confirmation that LA needs a dynamic point guard that can create for himself and others.
Paul George out with dizziness
On Wednesday, it appeared as though the roles would be reversed: Kawhi Leonard sat the previous game with back spasms, and was listed as questionable to play against the Wizards; it seemed George would once again be the primary offensive engine. But Leonard was cleared to play, and just before tipoff, the Clippers announced that George would sit with dizziness.
It’s an uncommon ailment, particularly when it doesn’t appear as though George sustained any sort of concussion-like injury against the Celtics on Tuesday. It might be nothing, but it’s worth considering if George will sit out the All-Star game if this dizziness continues.
Luke Kennard makes the most of his minutes
With George and Marcus Morris Sr. out, and Kawhi Leonard earning two fouls early in the first quarter, Head Coach Tyronn Lue was forced to dig deep in his bench. He called on Luke Kennard, who has been in and out of LA’s rotation this year. Kennard has been criticized for his lack of aggression throughout the season, but he proved all the doubters wrong on Thursday. Kennard came out gunning, going 4-5 from three for 14 points in 23 minutes. He also looked great as a playmaker, dishing out four assists, including a sweet no look pass to Ivica Zubac.
Kennard took Thursday’s game as an audition, and he capitalized on the opportunity. When the Clippers are at full strength, he’s still going to have trouble staying in the rotation, but he gives LA a new dynamic that cannot be replicated. He has defensive size (though he can’t always execute properly on that end) a quick release and a surprisingly high level of court vision. It’s nice to know that, at the very least, Lue has him in his back pocket, and he’ll be ready when his number is called.
The Clippers (other than Leonard and George) will have a week off for the All-Star break before resuming their season next Thursday against the Golden State Warriors at 7 p.m.