Having shrugged off another brutal display of first-half offense, the Clippers on Saturday went a step further by breaking some of their worst and most persistent habits too.
Committing fewer turnovers, grabbing more rebounds, receiving a significant contribution from Serge Ibaka — all had been rarities on their own all season, let alone occurring on the same night. Yet when Ibaka ripped away his seventh offensive rebound with 7 minutes 28 seconds to play in the fourth quarter and tossed up a soft hook shot, the Clippers’ onetime 16-point deficit was long gone, their lead had swelled to five and the stars above San Antonio’s AT&T Center appeared to be aligning.
But it would not be a night the Clippers showed a different side of themselves.
After Ibaka’s basket, the Clippers scored just two points the rest of the game as their offense reverted to its typically bleak form in a 101-94 defeat in San Antonio, a loss that gave the Spurs the tiebreaker in their three-game season series.
“We go through too many spurts where we don’t score the basketball,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We either got to get to the free-throw line or we got to score two points.”
Just as trouble arrived in the first half during a nearly nine-minute stretch without a field goal, the end arrived when they shot just three for 16 in the fourth quarter’s final nine minutes. Two minutes after Ibaka’s hook shot, Lue replaced his reserves with his starters. When that produced only two points in two minutes, he replaced center Ivica Zubac with forward Nicolas Batum for a smaller lineup to more easily switch screens defensively. But the Clippers failed to score during the final 4:18.
“Coming down and just not moving the ball, not moving it from side to side,” said forward Amir Coffey, whose 20 points were a team high. “I feel like when we were going on our run we were making two or three reversals, guys were moving, guys were cutting just making it hard on their defense.”
The Clippers cannot credit their lost opportunity for a win to few opportunities for baskets. Behind a season-high 21 offensive rebounds, they took 100 shots, but failed to break 100 points.
Backup center Isaiah Hartenstein scored six points in his first game since spraining an ankle Dec. 18, and the Clippers (21-23) hope the return of one of their best passers will help the ball move and reduce offensive stagnation. But the return to form they truly need is that of Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson, the offense’s two ostensible pillars while Paul George recovers from an elbow injury.
Morris scored 15 points and Jackson seven. In his last four games, Morris has made 20 of 60 shots, including six of 24 three-point attempts, while getting to the free-throw line just 10 times.
Since returning from the league’s health and safety protocols Dec. 31, Jackson has made 40 of his 123 shots, 18 of his 58 three-point tries and taken only 15 free throws.
Saturday’s surprise was Ibaka, who scored 10 points, with 10 rebounds. His role moving closer to February’s trade deadline is unclear but could likely be reduced given the return of Hartenstein, the backup center. The Clippers were 11 points better per 100 possessions with Hartenstein on the floor at the time of his injury, a team high among significant contributors.
“I thought Isaiah was pretty good for his first game back, making his floater, around the basket,” Lue said. “Defensively it was hard for him to move a little bit with the switches on Dejounte [Murray] but I thought he did some good things offensively.
“Serge, I thought he was good, seven offensive rebounds, he made a couple of threes, had some big blocks. He played with a lot of energy and was part of that group that got us back into the game.”
For the first time in three games the Clippers scored at least 20 points in the first quarter. But even such a modest accomplishment did not happen easily. They failed to score a field goal in the quarter’s final 4:10, and neither team scored for the final 3:17 — combining to miss 12 shots — until a free throw by Batum with less than a second left broke the streak.
It took four more minutes for the Clippers to score another point. In all, they went nearly nine minutes between field goals, allowing a 16-1 run by San Antonio in the process, and it had everything to do with why they trailed by nine at halftime. It was fitting their final possession of the half ended with a blown fast-break opportunity — the Clippers are tied for last in transition scoring efficiency.
Where the Clippers have excelled this season, at limiting opponents to a league-low 17.5 free throws per game, backfired in the third quarter, as the Spurs shot 15 free throws in those 12 minutes alone. They took 27 free throws on the night, making 22, to the Clippers’ eight free throws.
But just one minute into the fourth quarter, an Eric Bledsoe assist leading to a jumper by Batum erased what had been a 16-point deficit, and one possession later a layup by Brandon Boston Jr. — off their season-high-tying 17th offensive rebound — pushed the Clippers ahead by three. Ibaka was central, with 10 points and 10 rebounds with two blocks. How long he plays a role as large as this, in 18 minutes, is unclear given the return of Hartenstein, who is Zubac’s typical backup.
But as quickly as their offense began clicking, its gears ground to a halt – again. What had been a five-point lead was a three-point deficit with three minutes to play after back-to-back midrange jumpers by Murray over Zubac, the guard nodding as he entered a subsequent timeout. Coming off the first consecutive 30-point performances in his five seasons, he finished with 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
“Down the stretch we struggled,” Lue said. “Just wasn’t decisive on what we wanted to do, as far as attacking, getting to the basket when we’re supposed to do.”