The big question surrounding the L.A. Clippers this summer was how they’d fare this season without Kawhi Leonard, who is facing a long recovery from July ACL surgery and projects to be out until March at the earliest. Certainly, the Clippers will miss the presence of their 4-time All-NBA forward. But the optimistic view has been that the team still has enough firepower to remain afloat throughout the regular season and perhaps contend for a title if and when Leonard returns.
That optimism, however, took a big ol’ punch to the nose on Wednesday as the Clippers, coming off their first victory of the season, were embarrassed on their home floor by the Cleveland Cavaliers, losing 92-79 and dropping to 1-3 on the season.
One play, in particular, was emblematic of the Clippers’ night.
Early in the second quarter, with Cleveland already up 12, L.A. guard Luke Kennard made an errant pass in the lane that was easily picked off by Cavs big man Lauri Markkanen, who quickly got the ball ahead to his point guard Collin Sexton. With Paul George in pursuit and Nicolas Batum lining himself up for the block, the 6-foot-1 Sexton took just two dribbles before posterizing the 6-foot-8 Batum with an aggressive left-handed dunk that sent not only the Cleveland bench into hysterics but also former Cav and current Lakers superstar LeBron James.
“My goodness Young Bull! With the left too,” tweeted James.
Nasty Dunk and a Nasty Flow
That LeBron, who is currently sidelined with a sore ankle, would choose that moment to tweet was a curious decision since he had presumably just witnessed his Lakers blow a 26-point first-quarter lead to the previously winless Thunder. (James did not travel with the team to Oklahoma City.) Of course, the context of the tweet did not go unnoticed by NBA Twitter, even amongst Lakers fans.
But while LeBron may be advised to read the room a bit better in the future, there’s no denying that Sexton’s dunk was nasty, which was the exact word Clippers head coach Ty Lue used to describe his team’s overall offensive rhythm against the Cavaliers.
“I thought the flow was nasty for us offensively,” Lue said after the game. “I thought we did a lot of over-dribbling.” In their only win of the young season, Monday over Portland, the Clippers moved the ball well and with purpose, registering 37 assists. But against Cleveland, that figure dropped to 19. “Just wasn’t a good game for us I think offensively, as far as just trusting the pass and moving the basketball.”
The Clippers went into the game knowing they would need to shoot well from the outside to win. The Cavs have taken to starting three centers — Markkanen, Jarrett Allen and 7-foot rookie lottery pick Evan Mobley — making the paint a less-than-inviting situation. But the Clippers were nevertheless unable to take capitalize on their perimeter advantage, opting for poor shots, according to Lue, rather than making Cleveland pay for their closeouts and unconventional starting five.
“Wasn’t too many catch-and-shoot shots,” Lue said. “They did a good job of closing out and trying to run us off the line, but 9-for-41 from three…we haven’t been shooting the ball particularly well, and when you’re not shooting the ball well, you can’t take bad shots.”
Continuing a trend from the first three games, the Clippers went just 31-for-87 from the floor (35.6%) and 9-for-41 from behind the arc—the latter’s 22.0% being a far cry from last season when L.A led the NBA in 3-point efficiency at 41.1%. The Clippers are currently 26th in the league in 3-point percentage and 24th from the field overall.
Fatigued George Says This Was a ‘Different Game’
Energy was once again an issue for the Clippers, with Lue saying his guys looked flat from the get-go. After the game, George, who went 6-for-20 from the floor and 0-for-8 from three, told reporters that his legs felt heavy and that he is still acclimatizing to an expanded role in the absence of Leonard. To this point, the 11-year veteran is 15th in the league in field attempts and 12th in 3-point attempts—despite the fact that 11 teams have already played a fifth game, one more than L.A.
George also admitted that Cleveland’s big lineup presented problems.
“It was different. This was different, a different game,” said George. “Having their three-man and their five-man switching and not giving up much in the interior – this is a different game.” George also pointed to the impact Cleveland’s rebounding had on foiling the Clippers’ gameplan:
We couldn’t really get out and run as much. They were sending multiple guys at the rim, getting rebounds, so I thought that was kind of deflating to us. We couldn’t really get out and run, we was using a lot of energy trying to rebound. And then when we did rebound, we had to send everybody to the board, so really wasn’t no outlets or advantage going down, fastbreaks, so they just did a good job of that. That allowed them to load up on their defense.
Down the line, nobody on the Clippers’ side shot the ball well against Cleveland. Only center Ivica Zubac (4-for-6 from the field) was above 50% and the bench trio of Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and Isaiah Hartenstein—star performers from L.A.’s win over Portland—combined to shoot just 6-for-22 overall, with Kennard and Mann totaling only three makes on 12 attempts from behind the arc. Reggie Jackson briefly caught fire in the third, but otherwise his poor start to the season continued against the Cavs, finishing 6-for-15 and raising his overall shooting percentage to just 32.4%.
Despite Wednesday’s obvious shooting woes, time and time again Lue pointed reporters to the team’s general lack of bounce, and even included in his assessment the normally energetic second unit.
“I saw from the start of the game we just didn’t have a lot of pop, so we tried to go to the bench a little early,” said Lue. “They didn’t have much pop either.”