Last week, after a fifth straight Clippers loss, there was no team meeting in the visitors’ locker room at Target Center in Minneapolis. There were no grand pronouncements among players.
But there was one voice that cut through the quiet of a losing streak.
Four years after reserve guard Norman Powell played with Kawhi Leonard on a championship team with Toronto, Powell saw “championship DNA” in the Clippers too. Judging by the team’s comments throughout training camp, as talk of a title swirled, everyone had. But when it had yet to translate into consistency, Powell, frustrated by the losing, spoke up.
He wanted, he said days later, to remind the team what was still possible.
“I talked to the team. I told them: ‘This team is deeper than the Raptors team I was on. It’s all about identity and who we are and how we’re going to play,’ ” Powell said. “I feel like every team goes through it. If you look back at championship teams and top teams, there’s always a point in the season where you get here. And we’ve been here a couple times for whatever reason it is, and it’s just gutting up and taking it and coming out of it.”
Toronto’s 2019 title team knew its identity early, based on years of the same core playing together, Powell said. The arrivals of Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol and the promotion of an assistant to coach, Nick Nurse, enhanced but did not dramatically alter that foundation. And by winning 12 of their first 13 games, the Raptors endured little of the inconsistency the Clippers have battled.
But every team hits its moment to decide what it will be, and the Raptors’ moment of clarity arrived after a 13-point loss to Milwaukee in January on a national broadcast.
“A tipping point for the team and locking back in,” Powell said.
Being routed in Denver by 31 points in a game so uncompetitive that coach Tyronn Lue benched his starters at halftime and then losing the next night by 13 against the scuffling Minnesota Timberwolves — games in which the Clippers never led — felt like the Clippers’ own. But there had been talk before of urgency with little consistency to show for it.
On Tuesday night, two days after the Clippers lost a double-digit, fourth-quarter lead to the Atlanta Hawks but believed they witnessed a step forward in their process with a new starting lineup and new rotations leading to a spike in energy and defensive intensity, their six-game losing streak ended with a 113-101 win over the Dallas Mavericks at Crypto.com Arena.
“There’s a tad more urgency,” forward Robert Covington said. “That’s one thing we preached upon was urgency tonight. Basically said the first team that throws the first punch is the team that’s going to come out and win. And that’s what we sat up there and did.”
Playing without Paul George (hamstring) and Luke Kennard (calf) again but using the same reshuffled starting lineup and revamped bench lineup for a second consecutive game, the Clippers led by 23 while looking like the kind of team Powell described earlier — no matter who is on the court, he said.
“The identity of who we are every single night that we’re on the floor is the biggest thing that we have to figure out, and that doesn’t matter who’s suiting up that night,” Powell said.
“It’s just, we’re going to be a hard-nosed, tough-playing defense. We’re going to be an offense that moves the ball, attacks you, puts pressure on the rim and generates open shots. And that’s not — PG doesn’t have to play for that, Kawhi doesn’t have to play for that. That’s just an identity and style of basketball we have to start really locking into now.”
Leonard had 33 points and nine rebounds, and the Clippers (22-21) committed only 10 turnovers.
With centers Ivica Zubac and Moses Brown both saddled by three first-half fouls, the Clippers locked into Mavericks star Luka Doncic — he shot three for nine in the first half — by using the kind of all-wing lineup Lue couldn’t wait to test drive in the preseason but had yet to fully embrace.
“I think we have the personnel to do it,” Lue said of playing the kind of hard-nosed defense and attacking offense Powell had described. “I just think it’s having the right combinations and getting everybody healthy so we can kind of see who plays well together and how we can build that, that chemistry [you are] talking about on both sides of the basketball.”
This time, it was Dallas that never led. Even as Doncic (43 points) cut the lead to eight in the final minutes, the Clippers kept coming, with a pair of three-pointers by Terance Mann, who replaced Reggie Jackson as starting point guard again and was a team-best plus-24 while scoring 12 points. Jackson was fully out of the rotation against Dallas.
Lue turned to Covington, the little-used forward, early to replace Zubac, and a lineup of all wings responded by outscoring the Mavericks by seven over the next six minutes in the first quarter. The Clippers won Covington’s season-high 31 minutes by 13 points.
“With our big wing lineup … I thought it was really good,” Lue said.
Leonard looked as physically dominant as he has all season, closer than ever to the 2021 version who dominated Dallas in key moments during the teams’ first-round playoff series before injuring his knee weeks later. Leonard intercepted a cross-court pass. He smothered a drive by Doncic in the second half, then drilled a three-pointer for a 77-55 lead.
The Clippers have a “lot of work to do,” Lue said, but by playing the right way, “we’re a tough team.”
Just as important was Powell, who scored 27 points on only 14 shots — his offseason emphasis on offensive efficiency paying dividends.
Powell stayed in until the very end, when it was no longer just one voice that could be heard in a locker room but the volume of thousands inside the arena seeing the Clippers flash their potential for one of their longest stretches this season.
“That’s the style,” Powell said afterward, “that we got to play every night.”