Friday was supposed to be one of the season’s shortest flights. It nearly became one of the Clippers’ longest nights.
The fog blanketing the floor of the Sacramento Valley was thick enough that when the Clippers’ plane departed Los Angeles in the hours after Friday’s 119-115 victory against the Lakers, a diversion plan was put in place, as a precaution: Too much fog in Sacramento, and the Clippers would land in San Francisco before busing nearly two hours east and arriving around 3 a.m. to prepare for their second game in as many nights.
It wasn’t ultimately necessary, the visibility easing enough to allow a touchdown at their original destination. But hours later inside Golden1 Center, amid a 104-99 loss that marked the Clippers’ first in Sacramento since 2013 and ended the team’s 15-game winning streak here, they nonetheless resembled a team still trying to figure out the direction in which they are headed.
Coming off a win Friday that ended a three-game losing streak and was described by coach Tyronn Lue as the roster’s “best, complete game we played all year, from start to finish,” the Clippers began this two-game trip by seeing an eight-point, first-quarter lead disappear, a comeback aided by a seven-minute stretch in the second quarter in which the Clippers’ offense appeared to be flying blind while mustering zero field goals but three turnovers.
It brought to mind the sputtering nights of offense and careless turnovers that produced the 25th-ranked offensive rating and an assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks in the league’s bottom third.
“The same plays we made last night, we didn’t make tonight,” Lue said.
Is that the Clippers this season? Or is it the moxie of the group that reeled off a 16-5 run to cut what had been a 14-point lead with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter to just three with less than three minutes to play?
That stretch recalled the resilience that sustained the Clippers (12-12) so often last season and has emerged again in moments since October too — none more recently than the crisp focus in Friday’s wire-to-wire win against the Lakers that was considered such a strong development because it resulted not so much on Paul George’s shot-making but the sum of their parts, Lue’s clever adjustments and the way they sharply executed them to fool, and then draw compliments from, several Lakers.
Perhaps no stretch exemplifies the Clippers’ dichotomy better than the final 29 seconds. Trailing 101-96 with the ball after a successful coaches’ challenge by Lue, reserve Terance Mann threw an inbounds lob from half court off the backboard for a turnover. But the game wasn’t yet over, not after Marcus Morris Sr. drilled his fourth three-pointer with 10 seconds to play to keep a comeback alive, albeit temporarily.
Morris scored a team-high 21 points, Reggie Jackson added 18 and George scored 15, on 21 shots, with 10 assists. Center Ivica Zubac, starting next to fellow center Serge Ibaka for the third consecutive game, scored 12 points with 11 rebounds.
The Clippers are 0-4 this season on the second night of a back-to-back set and 1-11 when trailing entering the fourth quarter.
To a degree, the Clippers can credibly argue that structural forces have worked against them in the season’s first six weeks, as they endure what is already their second stretch of five games in seven nights. And some issues seemed beyond the Clippers’ control. Terence Davis, a 21% three-point shooter against the rest of the league, continued to torch the Clippers from behind the arc for the second time in a week with outlier-level accuracy. After scoring a season-high 23 points in Los Angeles on Wednesday, he scored 28 to enliven a crowd that, entering Saturday, had seen only three home victories, tied for the fewest in the Western Conference.
“Momentum killers, he made,” Lue said.
Yet there were game-plan mistakes that allowed the lead to disappear, too, ones the Clippers acknowledged they shouldn’t allow, tired legs or not. Only four days after the Kings handed the Clippers a third consecutive loss in part by scoring 25 points in transition, they initially struggled to get out and run only to find their pace against Clippers reserves late in the first quarter and forcing the visitors to play at their speed. The Kings finished with 14 transition points and turned 17 Clippers turnovers into 16 points.
The turnovers limited the Clippers to only 16 second-quarter points. They shot 38% overall.
“The schedule hasn’t been to our favor early on but we know that and understand that but just some of the mental mistakes, we have to do a better job cleaning up,” Lue said.
Regardless of what took place Saturday night, the Clippers earned a victory earlier in the day, one they believe will help them head in the right direction. Forward Nicolas Batum, labeled the team’s “glue” because of his intelligence and defense, was cleared to begin training again after missing nearly two weeks because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
It was a welcome start to a long day, one that beget a long, losing night. After his postgame remarks had finished, Lue sat in front of a podium, his eyes still glued to a box score, before raising from his chair with a sigh.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.