The NBA season is not yet one week old, the pre-Halloween portion of the calendar when teams are still learning whether their early results reflect who they really are, or if they are just masquerading in a costume hiding their real form.
It’s the time of year for taking the long view, when a poor game can be described as just one of 82.
But the Clippers this season no longer have the luxury of knowing their talent level is superior to most in the Western Conference, not with Kawhi Leonard expected to miss a significant number of games, if not all, and center Serge Ibaka yet to test his back in a game since June.
It’s why every opportunity is precious in a rugged playoff race, and why even though the Clippers’ identity is months from being known, what is certain is that through two games they have misfired twice when presented opportunities to turn their rallies into victories — the kinds of losses that could make a coach shake their head come April.
Two nights after rallying from a 19-point deficit to lead by eight points in the fourth quarter, only to lose after a six-minute scoring drought in San Francisco, the Clippers lost their home opener Saturday at Staples Center to Memphis, 120-114, when their 13-point, first-half rally was rendered moot by a second half that spoiled almost from the start.
Paul George scored 10 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter, only the sixth time in his career that he has produced at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, but the Grizzlies won with the balance the Clippers could not generate, and now they are 0-2 for the first time since 2010.
Grizzlies guard Ja Morant scored 28 points, De’Anthony Melton had 22 and Jaren Jackson Jr., in his return to the city where he spent his offseason regaining his rhythm after injuries stifled the progress of his young career, coolly knocked down the game’s biggest shot with 16 seconds to play and Memphis leading by two. His three-pointer on the wing was made possible by a drive by Morant that forced multiple Clippers defenders to pull in toward the key.
There were times Saturday when the Clippers looked as though they were in midseason form. Though their starting unit made eight of their first nine shots, and George was notably more aggressive looking for his three-point shot and drives than against Golden State in the first quarter as a course-correction to his season’s start, it was the bench unit of Isaiah Hartenstein, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum that were the engine that powered their first half.
That group, along with guard Reggie Jackson, closed the first quarter on a 10-0 run to lead 34-25 as the Clippers made six of their first 12 three-pointers.
Hartenstein had seven points after catching an alley-oop lob from Batum over the zone of Memphis in the second quarter and then making the free throw. Then he had nine after a dump-off pass under the rim from Mann.
Hartenstein finished with 11 points in 16 minutes.