Kawhi Leonard called it “ridiculous.”
Russell Westbrook called it “crazy.”
His new coach with the Clippers, Tyronn Lue, called it a performance that left him “intrigued by what I saw” — and just as galled by what he didn’t.
Terance Mann called it nothing out of the ordinary — another role change in a career, and season, full of them.
Call it, officially, the second-highest-scoring game in NBA history, Westbrook’s Clippers debut coinciding with Kawhi Leonard at his most offensive and most durable in recent memory.
But Friday’s 176-175 Clippers loss to Sacramento in double overtime was also a reminder of how much work remains for the team to reach the championship level they aspire to, and how little time there is to get there.
The Clippers obliterated the franchise’s record for points despite having only two practices and one shoot-around under their belt with their new additions to the roster, and held leads of 14 points with 3 minutes 58 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, six with 3:04 left in the first overtime and six, again, with 1:46 remaining in the second overtime. And they still lost after committing 25 turnovers and watching Malik Monk score 45 points off of the Kings’ bench and De’Aaron Fox add 42.
In a key matchup against a team one spot ahead of the Clippers in the standings, Lue showed how deep his trust for Westbrook, the former most valuable player, runs by playing him the final seven minutes of the fourth quarter, all of the first overtime and the first three minutes of the second, until Westbrook fouled out with 17 points, 14 assists and seven turnovers. Paul George said Westbrook’s aggression, which led to easy baskets, was just what the team needed from a lead guard.
“He pulled out a lot of games in his career, you know, and so I thought what hurt us was their ball pressure, getting up the floor, picking up full court,” Lue said when asked why he leaned on Westbrook so often late in the game. “That’s when we turned the basketball over. So keeping him in the game and on the floor to initiate because the pressure doesn’t bother him. I thought that was key for us.”
Mann felt the immediate ripple effect of Westbrook’s addition by playing about 18 minutes, his fewest in 12 games. He finished with the team’s best plus-minus, the Clippers winning his minutes by six points. Lue acknowledged Mann’s minutes weren’t enough.
“He was good, he should have played more,” Lue said. “We all just trying to figure it out. Like I said, I know what T-Mann brings to the team. Just trying to learn some things about the newer guys and just trying to put some different pieces together and see how it looks. I had a talk with T-Mann so he understands, but probably should have him on the floor a little bit more, but that’s a learning experience for me, as well.”
Mann acknowledged earlier this season that he struggled finding his place amid an ever-changing role that saw him play everything from ballhandler to a small-ball center. Stability arrived in early January when Mann replaced point guard Reggie Jackson in the starting lineup.
“Just trusting it, just trust [coaches] but I mean I trust them 100%,” Mann said. “He’s put me in position to be great plenty of times before so I trust him.”
Shifting roles has defined Mann’s four-year career with the Clippers, and he called this nothing different. But is it frustrating?
“It can be but I mean, I’m used to it,” Mann said. “That’s just my role on this team, that’s the role I carved out in the NBA for myself being able to play multiple positions so that’s what comes with it. Some nights you’re going to be in one position, some nights you’re not. Some nights you’ll be starting, some nights you’re not. That’s what got me here.”
George, who saw his minutes limit expanded during the game before being held out as a precaution from the final overtime, called the loss a breakdown of fundamentals. George and Westbrook combined for three turnovers over three consecutive possessions late in the fourth quarter, a stretch that changed the game, as Lue noted.
“We were poor to get back and match up and gave up just a lot of baskets without them even running offense, just them pushing the pace,” said George, who scored 34 points with 10 rebounds and got to the line for 14 free throws in his 41 minutes.
Monk’s game-tying three-pointer with seconds left in regulation was a combination of breakdowns, including “a little miscommunication,” George said.
With the Clippers trying to ease the transition of incorporating new additions of Westbrook, Eric Gordon and Mason Plumlee into their rotation — for now, former Denver guard Bones Hyland is out of the regular rotation — and with starting center Ivica Zubac out Friday because of an illness and a sore leg — a combination that could see him sidelined Sunday at West-leading Denver — miscommunications are to be expected.
Yet playoff seeding hinges on quick progress, with their next five games all against teams currently in the West’s top nine.