One by one, the starting lineup arrived inside Crypto.com Arena.
There was All-Star forward Paul George, in a trucker hat and yellow jacket. Fellow All-Star wing Kawhi Leonard in a blue hat. Center Ivica Zubac, in a polo. And point guard Reggie Jackson, sitting along the baseline in a sweater and backward hat. In all, five Clippers responsible for key roles in the team’s three consecutive wins entering Thursday sat out injured, the team expressing cautious optimism that all but Zubac, who suffered a bone bruise in his left knee, could return as soon as Saturday.
In their place, a lineup that had spent just three possessions together became the starters, a new look that raised what by now have become familiar questions for the perpetually incomplete Clippers: On a night when the Clippers look nothing like the team they hope to be come the postseason amid a 111-95 loss and relying on rotations that might never be paired together again, what is there to be learned that could pay dividends when they are all back?
The question’s relevancy stems from its frequency. With Leonard and point guard John Wall still not playing games on consecutive days and the long nature of the regular season all but guaranteeing more short-handed nights ahead, Thursday will not be the last time the Clippers are unable to add to their their sample size of full-strength minutes and, in turn, learn from them.
“As a coach you always think you’re behind,” coach Tyronn Lue said, “and I think we’re really behind offensively, especially how we need to play. And so until we get that continuity, until we get everyone back and everyone healthy, when we get a two or three week sample size of how we want to play offensively, that’ll make me feel a lot better.”
Three hours later, he was optimistic that “we have enough time” to develop into the title contender they expected. Making the most of that time means treating nights like Thursday, devoid of continuity, as not devoid of lessons.
Terance Mann scored 22 points with 11 rebounds and Brandon Boston Jr. scored 16 points off the bench.
Lue wanted to see whether rookie big man Moussa Diabate, recently recalled from the G League, could maintain his energy while blitzing Suns ballhandlers and switching onto more experienced, smaller guards.
Lue wanted to test whether Boston, the second-year wing more known for his offense, could maintain the “defensive mindset” Lue wants to instill. Whether Jason Preston, a second-year point guard also recalled from the G League, could make plays when the offense broke down. Despite plenty of ball movement, there was little downhill attacking in a first half where the Clippers mustered only 37 points.
Yet if the Clippers need Diabate for spot postseason minutes, one teammate said before tipoff, perhaps a straight line could be drawn to a night like this, when his NBA education was taken to graduate school in the fourth quarter as Chris Paul, the surefire Hall of Fame point guard,
locked onto Diabate for one of his beloved midrange jumpers, only to misfire over Diabate’s long-armed contest.
“I thought he did a decent job,” Lue said. “His effort and energy is always going to be there. Now it’s just about learning more.”
To Phoenix coach Monty Williams, waiting to learn about your team under ideal conditions will leave a coach always waiting. The only learning is done while on the fly.
“I think every NBA season is different equations that we all use to get to where we need to go,” Williams said. “If you’re looking at one paradigm or maybe two, and you think ‘OK we got this and this and we’re going to get’ — you’re just going to be frustrated and disappointed. You have to be open-minded, I think, and just take what the season gives you.
“You get a call at 11 o’clock at night or, for me, I get a text at 6, 7 in the morning, and it could change my whole practice plan or game plan. That’s just the way it is. As far as knowing your team I think you’re just learning about different teams along the way. And then if you’re fortunate enough to make it to the playoffs you just try to put it all together as best you can. I’m sure there have been teams in the past that have had continuity all year long and they probably have been really good but I’ve never experienced that.”
After enduring a rash of injuries for the last two seasons, the Clippers (17-14) know that better than almost any other team. It was why more than watching for how a player would fare in a new role, Lue and the Clippers want to see a baseline of defensive fight and competence Thursday. Trailing by as many as 31 points, they trimmed the lead to 14 in the third quarter.
Competitiveness, forward Nicolas Batum said before tipoff, is a skill.
“I take positives just Amir [Coffey] in that third quarter getting going a little bit, I think T-Mann playing well, Brandon Boston getting some good action,” Lue said. “And then in that second half being able to score 58 points when we only had 37 in the first half. We manufactured points by attacking the paint.”
The thornier question is when the Clippers will have the chance to work on issues that could determine their playoff fate. At the top of the list is improving the offense when using small lineups, George said late Wednesday. The spacing can be a mess, their pace uneven. Getting Leonard and George back will help them test their progress. That opportunity is coming soon — they hope.