During a training camp that now feels much longer than two months ago, the Clippers, at that time fully healthy, believed the sheer depth of their loaded roster could forestall the up and downs that come with a long season’s inevitable injuries.
Yet the absences Friday of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and last season’s leading three-point shooter, Luke Kennard, create no mere dent in a lineup. All three will miss Sunday’s game against Indiana, as well and coach Tyronn Lue has acknowledged the “very slim” margin for error without them.
The Clippers then set out to prove their coach right.
In a first half inside Crypto.com Arena that was in some respects their best, the Clippers made 62.5% of their shots — their best accuracy of any first half this season, 24 minutes of Terance Mann blowing past Denver guard Jamal Murray for a layup, then scoring at the rim by splitting the defense of Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown, en route to making six of his first seven shots for 13 points. He finished with 16.
Yet even with shooting like that, the Clippers trailed the Nuggets at halftime by a dozen and wound up losing 114-104. And even with backup guard John Wall making his first seven field goals for a season-high 23 points, the Clippers then saw their deficit grow to 17 in the third quarter despite barely cooling offensively.
Their margin from error went from slim to none because of the errors their shooting could not overcome. Lue called turnovers their “Achilles’ heel,” and it took only 58 seconds for the night’s first, an errant pass from Reggie Jackson that turned into a three-pointer on the ensuing possession.
By halftime, they’d committed 11 turnovers for 18 Denver points — nearly a third of the Nuggets’ halftime scoring total coming from the Clippers, who have lost two straight to fall to 11-9.
“If we can get those [turnovers] miraculously to eight to 10, then I like our chances,” Lue had said before tipoff. “But when they’re 18, 20, 22 turnovers, it’s hard to win a game.”
Even when the Clippers went the entire third quarter without a turnover, then ripped off an 11-2 run during the fourth quarter’s opening minutes, they still trailed by eight — a reflection of the trends that have doomed them around the margins not only against Denver, but all season.
The Clippers rank fourth-worst in the share of possessions that end in a turnover. They ultimately committed 14, eight more than the Nuggets (12-7).
The Clippers rank fourth worst in offensive rebounding percentage. They grabbed just four, and because of that the league’s worst team at scoring second-chance points — only 8.8 per game — went three and a half quarters without scoring a point in a second-chance opportunity. Denver, meanwhile, grabbed six more offensive rebounds and scored 17 more second-chance points.
And the Clippers’ 74.8% free-throw shooting, this season’s fifth-worst mark? They made just 19 of their 34 chances.
Which of those ominous trends can the Clippers reverse the quickest?
“Rebounding and free throws,” said guard Norman Powell, who scored 11 points. “Rebounding is effort, boxing out, hustle, competing for the loose ball. Free throws in concentration.”
The eyes of Jackson, who scored nine points, went wide hearing where the Clippers ranked in such categories. He called turnovers and second-chance points the easiest to avoid.
“You can box out every play, and you can make the simple pass,” Jackson said. “Sometimes with our talent we make it too hard and too difficult on ourselves. We attack gaps that teams are closing down.”
Unlike last season when Lue could change the offense knowing that Leonard and George were out for weeks and months, he has yet to make sweeping changes this year to an offense tailored to their strengths because he doesn’t expect their stars to be out for the “long term,” he said.
“I feel pretty good about the situation right now and how guys are progressing,” he said.
Lue added that he had confidence in the “great leadership in the locker room, and, our coaching staff has great leaders as well, but sometimes it’s just, it is tough to win games when you build your offense around two key guys and they’re out.”