A potential Clippers comeback victory was so tantalizingly close Tuesday night, an intentionally missed free throw close, a fumbled rebound close.
But in the end, close wasn’t good enough for the Clippers, a 103-101 loss to the Dallas Mavericks leaving the team in agony because of how close it came to happening. The team had rallied from 25 points down to take the lead in the fourth quarter, only to fall short.
“That’s what we’ve been about the last three years,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of his team competing and coming back in games. “We didn’t start the game particularly well offensively or defensively and got behind. And when you get behind by that many points, it’s hard to try to catch up and then you get exhausted.”
Nicolas Batum had been the man of the hour for the Clippers, knocking down three-pointer after three-pointer, going seven for seven from long distance to become the only player in franchise history to finish a game perfect from beyond the three-point arc with that many attempts.
Batum stepped to the free-throw line for two shots with 4.2 seconds left and the Clippers down 103-100.
He made the first free throw but missed the second on purpose.
Lue said he wanted to run the Clippers’ “X free-throw” play, which turned out to be Batum missing the free throw to the right side of the rim.
The basketball bounced and ended up in the hands of Clippers forward Robert Covington. But as he tried to get possession of the ball, he lost it out of bounds.
“I was fouled on that play,” Covington said. “Simple as that.”
And that was it for the Clippers.
They were left shaking their heads at the off-balance shot Mavericks star Luka Doncic made as the 24-second clock was running out late in the fourth quarter. Doncic had kept the ball from going out of bounds and threw up a 29-foot three-pointer, the ball setting into the net for a 102-98 Dallas lead with 27.6 seconds remaining.
That shot gave Doncic 35 points to go along with 11 rebounds.
It was essentially the backbreaker for the Clippers, who actually took a five-point lead in the fourth quarter after falling behind by 25 late in the first half.
“To come back and take the lead against a good team like this just talks about our character and what we’re trying to build here,” Lue said. “So, like I said, they got the victory, but we kept competing. So, I like to see that.”
Already without Kawhi Leonard yet again because of his right knee management, the Clippers lost starting guard Luke Kennard because of a strained right calf.
Kennard was called for a foul early in the first quarter and looked to be in discomfort, limping back to the Clippers’ bench with about nine minutes left. He eventually untucked his jersey and walked back to the locker room.
The Clippers got back reserve point guard John Wall, who missed the team’s 122-106 win Monday night in Houston for left knee management, but things still got worse for the Clippers after Kennard was injured.
Wall was strong off the bench, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds and four assists. Paul George attempted just four shots in the first half, making two, and it was not nearly enough for a Clippers team in need of offense.
George faced double teams all game, the Mavericks (8-5) limiting him to 13 attempts from the field. He hit seven of those and finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists.
The Clippers (8-7) fell into a 15-point hole in the first quarter that grew into a 54-29 deficit late in the second quarter, forcing them to try to play catch-up. The Clippers shot just 34.4% from the field in the first half and turned the ball over 12 times.
They outscored the Mavericks 33-15 in the third quarter to get back into the game.
“I would love to win it tonight,” said Batum, who had 22 points. “But you can’t put yourself in that position. I know it’s against a good team with a great player. It can be tough on the road to try to produce a win. We almost did it. Almost pulled it out. But we gotta get a better start. You need to be a better job than [that] and don’t be down 25 on the road.”