On the NBA circuit, there are few cities in which the visiting locker room clears out quicker than here, where late-night dinners and nightlife await along Biscayne Bay or the short drive to South Beach.
And that is on a good night. There was certainly no reason for the Clippers to linger after Thursday night’s 115-110 loss to the Miami Heat, after a night where small breakdowns continued the big trend hanging over this season: The Clippers still cannot gain traction on their championship pursuit, a constant run of injuries leading a preseason title contender to often slip backward as soon as it finds progress.
After Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot Monday claimed the opener of this four-game trip and injected life into the squad in the long-awaited return of Leonard and fellow All-Star Paul George from injury, the Clippers have lost to Orlando and Miami, teams that have struggled to find their identities.
Amid long stares in the locker room, the Clippers remained optimistic that they could play the long game and become the team they want to be.
“I’ve got confidence, that we’ve done it before, very similar locker room over my time here last three years, so I got confidence we can do it, we’ve just got to all get healthy and get on the same page and playing at the same time,” point guard Reggie Jackson said. “It’s going to take some reps but hopefully we can all get healthy here soon and start actually logging minutes together to put it together.”
Said George: “We’re not that far off.”
A 10-point first-quarter Clippers lead was undone by allowing 13 consecutive points. After the Clippers cut their deficit to one midway through the fourth quarter, Miami began a 12-5 run in the next four minutes. Bam Adebayo scored 31 points but Jimmy Butler scored Miami’s final eight during the game’s final three minutes, including three contested jumpers to extend the Heat’s lead to six, eight and five at critical junctures.
“Too many breakdowns against a team like this where it was like one pass, bucket or we just fell asleep, no help side [defense],” said George, who scored 29 points, with eight rebounds and seven assists that led to 19 points. “Those points we can’t give up to a good team and I thought that was the game.”
Not even a typically reliable indicator in Clippers victories could save them from losses on back-to-back nights. They entered Wednesday 10-2 when making more three-pointers than their opponent. They made seven more than Orlando, and five more than Miami, even shooting 47% against the Heat. On Wednesday, turnovers and what coach Tyronn Lue called poor fourth-quarter defense overcame that advantage, and one night later, Miami exploited the turnover gap again, committing eight to the Clippers’ 16.
“I have to be better, just giving the ball away,” said Jackson, who traveled, committed a carry and threw an easily intercepted pass in a five-minute stretch of the third quarter. He finished with four turnovers, the same as George.
There were Clippers reinforcements in Luke Kennard and John Wall, who played after being held out the first night of the back-to-back for precautionary reasons, and Marcus Morris Sr. returned to the starting lineup after being ill in Orlando. But as some teammates came back, others were unavailable.
Leonard was held out of the second night of the back to back and Terance Mann was in concussion protocol after slamming into Orlando’s Kevon Harris on the final play of Wednesday’s overtime. Even those who did play were kept on a tightly choreographed lineup rotation. Lue coaches off of gut feel for which lineup adjustments to make, but since Leonard and George returned Monday under strict minutes limits, he has coached while referencing a card that he said shows times when players should be removed.
One of few silver linings that Lue has taken from the Clippers’ up-and-down start is that it is no outlier in a Western Conference where eight teams entered Thursday between .500 and .583. No one has run away from the pack.
“That always makes you feel better about the season and how it’s going,” Lue said before tipoff.
That leaves room for opportunity. How long it will take the Clippers to take advantage is another question, however.