The Clippers’ dangerous potential materialized during the first half Friday.
What emerged, after that, was how far they still have to go to get this collection of talent playing at the championship-caliber level they expect.
In a 119-114 Philadelphia win, the Clippers saw progress melt away into a painful reminder that they’ve rarely put together a full game of dominance, what looked like perhaps their best victory of the season turning into a bitter loss.
Joel Embiid scored 10 of his 44 points in the fourth quarter as “M-V-P” chants rained down on the center.
James Harden scored 20 points, with a career-high 21 assists and 11 rebounds.
Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points and Paul George added 22 for the Clippers (19-15).
The loss was the 10th game since Leonard and George returned from injuries in a Dec. 5 win against Charlotte. In that span the Clippers had gone 6-3 entering Friday, with a combination of the league’s fourth-best defensive rating and its fourth-best three-point shooting at 39.9%.
Each was a building block of a first-half lead that grew to 20 points with 3:37 remaining in the second quarter. Philadelphia took only three free throws before halftime, eight fewer than its first-half average, made only four of its 14 three-pointers, and everyone not named Embiid shot 12 of 33.
Philadelphia turned the ball over only three times, but each was followed by an immediate Clippers basket — including a Norman Powell layup after a strip of Embiid, a George layup after he tapped the ball from Harden.
John Wall was held out because of a right ankle sprain, his prognosis labeled day to day, but with the bench ballhandling done by committee, the Clippers’ bench unit looked as sharp as it has all season. Reserves made nine of their 13 shots in the first half — an assist leading to every basket but one, and the Clippers made 10 of their 19 three-pointers overall in the first half against a Sixers defense that ranked second in the league at limiting opponents’ attempts from deep.
Yet the final three minutes of the first half were ominous as their lead was cut to 12, reminiscent of the way they allowed Charlotte to hang around two days earlier to make a 36-point game more interesting than it should have been, courtesy of a third quarter in which the Clippers were outscored by 15.
The slippage continued in the third quarter, when the Clippers were outscored by 12 as their lead evaporated entirely. They had more turnovers (four) than three-pointers (three) in the quarter, while Philadelphia began to find the holes in the defense that had suffocated them earlier, making five three-pointers in the third quarter.
When the Clippers wrestled a seven-point deficit down to a tie with five minutes remaining, a comeback started by Leonard’s offensive takeover, Philadelphia answered with a 10-1 run during a three-minute span. After a corner three-pointer by Batum pushed the Clippers into a one-point lead with four minutes to play, the Clippers missed their next four shots.