The LA Clippers’ last two contests against the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, two Western Conference contenders, felt undeniably like postseason games. Fan presence was palpable through the broadcast despite limited capacity, tensions ran high between opposing players, coaches tinkered with lineups and hunted mismatches, and the games had legitimate playoff implications.
If these matchups are proxies for the postseason, the Clippers should hope they are not indicative of what’s to come. After falling to Phoenix 109-101 and losing an opportunity to slide up to the no. 2 seed, LA lost to the Nuggets on Saturday night, 110-104, and allowed Denver to pass them in the standings. Kawhi Leonard’s return from a nine-game absence was not enough to overthrow the now third-seeded Nuggets.
An issue that revealed itself in both games (one that will hopefully be resolved before the playoffs begin on May 21) is the absence of one Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has now missed 25 straight games with what the Clippers organization has deemed as “lower back tightness,” and his inability to play has meant Head Coach Tyronn Lue has had to search for answers against two of the Western Conference’s four best offenses in Phoenix and Denver.
With Phoenix, the issue was switchability. Chris Paul and Devin Booker love to force switches onto opposing bigs and torture them off the dribble. Against Denver, it was MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic’s flawless skill set that did LA in. Jokic gave the Clippers a routine 30 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists on Saturday, scoring and diming from all areas of the floor. Ivica Zubac did as good of a job as Lue could’ve hoped in his 24 minutes of play, but he fell for the Joker’s tricks quite a bit: pump fakes at the three-point line that led to wide open dunks; pull-the-chair spin moves in the post; power moves in the lane that forced contact (10 free throws for Jokic on the night, four of which came from Zubac’s fouls).
No Ibaka also meant that while Zubac sat in the non-Jokic minutes, Lue once again called upon Patrick Patterson as the backup center. Veteran stretch bigs Paul Milsap and JaMychal Green carved Patterson up in the first half (he was a -11 in just seven minutes of play), and Lue quickly realized he’d have to try something else. He went with DeMarcus Cousins (more on him later) in the second half, and he was dominant against Denver’s backups, but Jokic was still able to get his when he returned.
There is probably no answer for Jokic throughout the entire league, but that didn’t stop Lue from experimenting. He closed the game with Cousins over Zubac, and while he wasn’t able to do any better of a job containing the Joker, the Clippers were able to claw their way back offensively from what was an 11-point Denver lead. Cousins hit a clutch three off an inbounds pass from Rajon Rondo (who was spectacular in the game) with 36 seconds left to bring the Clippers within four, the score being 108-104 at that point. The Clippers fouled Denver to extend the game, and Facundo Campazzo hit both free throws. Down the other end, Paul George capped off a rough night (5-21 from the field) with a missed three, and Denver was able to run the clock out to seal the win.
Who knows if Ibaka could’ve done any better of a job on Jokic, or moved his feet any more fluidly when switched onto Paul and Booker in the previous game for that matter. The more glaring issue is that when Zubac’s deficiencies rear their heads, the Clippers have no defensive options behind him without Ibaka. If Lue wants to try to outscore his opponent and throw defense to the wind (this strategy nearly worked down the stretch on Saturday) then sobeit, but there is a high likelihood that LA will face at least one of these teams in the postseason (not to mention Anthony Davis’ Lakers), and now they know what works. Ibaka is still crucial to this team’s postseason goals, and he now has just seven games left to get healthy and reintegrate himself before the playoffs begin.
When Lue elected to go with Cousins over Patterson (and eventually Zubac) in the second half, the immediate consensus (at least among Clippers Twitter) was something along the lines of “how is this an upgrade defensively?”. Well, it wasn’t. Cousins isn’t any more mobile than Patterson or Zubac, but he does add an offensive element that surprised Denver and allowed LA to roll with the Nuggets’ punches. Cousins tied his Clippers career-high with 16 points, hitting six of his nine shot attempts, including two of his three three-point attempts, all in just 14 minutes of play. He was a team-high +5, and were it not for a three-shot foul on Jokic that put the Nuggets up six with 1:40 to go (Cousins didn’t think it was a foul), Boogie might’ve been the hero of the game.
Cousins likely won’t see the floor in the postseason if Ibaka is healthy. But as of now, that ‘if’ is still an ‘if’ and Boogie has done an admirable job filling in despite his defensive lapses.
Rajon Rondo makes his case as a closer
The other bright spot off the bench was Rondo, who had his best game as a Clipper to date. He scored 18 points on 8-12 shooting, added five assists and five rebounds, hit two of his five three-point attempts, and came up with two steals, one of which was a crucial strip of PJ Dozier that led to a beautiful up-and-under layup from Rondo, cutting the deficit to three with two minutes to go in the game. It was an excellent all-around performance, and he settled the offense down the stretch in the way the Clippers’ front office likely envisioned when they traded for him at the trade deadline. Rondo made up for George’s rough shooting performance, and did a great job penetrating to the hoop, taking advantage of Jokic’s flatfootedness.
While Patrick Beverley remains out with a fractured hand (Lue says he’s nearing a return sometime in the next few games), Rondo’s performances have warranted consideration as to who should close games when both players are healthy. Beverley brings a defensive toughness and a shooting element that Rondo lacks, but he doesn’t put pressure on defenses as a ball-handler the way Rondo does. Perhaps it’ll be a game-to-game decision, and it will no-doubt be a luxury for Lue and his coaching staff to have both of them as options.
After missing nine of the Clippers’ last 10 games with a right foot injury, Leonard made his long-awaited return, and looked solid. He came storming out of the gates, scoring or assisting on four of the Clippers’ first five baskets, including a beautiful pass out of a post-up that found Ivica Zubac for a jam.
However, as the game went along, Leonard seemed a bit passive. He finished the game with 16 points, six assists and five rebounds in 30 minutes of play, and there were stretches where one might forget that he was on the floor (he didn’t draw a single foul). This is to be expected after missing such an extended period, and his efficiency (7-12 from the field, 2-3 from three) should be a positive takeaway.
The Clippers are now in desperate need of a bounce-back win after losing three straight games, and they’ll have the opportunity against the 26-38 Toronto Raptors on Tuesday. The game tips off at 7 p.m. from Staples Center.