The Clippers aren’t lacking fight — but it’s the fine-tuned execution that has eluded them during their first 0-2 start since 2010.
Coach Tyronn Lue expected this, to a degree, after his starting five could log time together in only a handful of preseason practices, yet even when the Clippers have made the right plays they have struggled to take advantage, with missed, open shots a theme in their defeats to Golden State and Memphis.
Three takeaways after Saturday’s 120-114 loss to Memphis:
1. How many games are required before judgments can be made in the NBA? That depends on whom you ask, and their definition of an acceptable sample size yet by only mid-November, so much will already be known about the Clippers’ ability, and shortcomings, to defend tough-cover lead guards.
Already they have seen Stephen Curry (45 points) and Ja Morant (28 points with eight assists) and their next 11 games will feature Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards three times, Portland’s Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum three times and Cleveland’s Collin Sexton, Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, Chicago’s Lonzo Ball and Miami’s Kyle Lowry.
The Clippers won’t guard everyone on that list exclusively with their starting backcourt of Reggie Jackson and Eric Bledsoe, but they’ll shoulder much of the task while hoping the starters’ so-far lacking team defense will improve behind them.
“The biggest thing for us is always communication, so defensively, we have to communicate, we have to talk about coverages, we’re gonna have to be vocal and then from there … it’s all our will to want to stop people,” Jackson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing, but once you have voices behind you, no matter who’s on the ball, I think it makes the job — [it] gives the guy on the ball more confidence, makes it a little more easy knowing that defense is a five-person thing and not just one on one.”
2. The Clippers have made it clear that they expect to be taken seriously in the Western Conference playoff race despite Kawhi Leonard’s absence — that they are good enough to bridge the divide until his return with winning basketball. It’s why two games, and two missed opportunities, into this season, their satisfaction with mounting 19- and 13-point comebacks has its limits given the way each ended.
“I’m happy we fought, but that can’t be who we are, just be happy that we played hard,” said Paul George, who had 41 points and 10 rebounds. “We gotta come in, we gotta do our job, we gotta win games.
”… I know it was a moral victory in Golden State, but tonight, we gotta do a better job. We gotta come out first, establish who we are. Playing hard should be a given. We gotta win games.”
3. Injured center Serge Ibaka watched Saturday from the sideline. In his continued absence, Ibaka’s likely future understudy, Isaiah Hartenstein, meshed impressively with the second unit alongside Terance Mann, Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum, scoring a personal 9-0 run in less than two minutes in the second quarter.
“He found ways to free himself, he screened, he’s an underrated passer,” George said. “I thought he just played hard. I thought he looked good.”
Hartenstein didn’t play the final 10 minutes, and coach Tyronn Lue said he’d looked tired at times, perhaps by the excitement of his season debut. But that foursome outscored Memphis by 13 points in 13 minutes together, a number that could have been even larger had Batum not missed five of his six three-point attempts. The way that unit has quickly jelled puts into starker contrast the starters’ inconsistent break-in period.
Without the chance to play together during preseason games, the starters’ chemistry is “probably not amazing from the first few games,” Jackson said. He was quick to add his belief that their potential will eventually be “scary.”
Starters have been outscored by 21 points in 20 minutes together. Their offense isn’t strictly to blame — they’re shooting 48% overall and making 41% of their three-point shots so far.
“Our first unit has to do a better job of setting the tone defensively, having a defensive mindset,” Lue said. “I don’t think we’re there right now, we’re not there yet. But it’s coming. And with guys being out for most of preseason and in and out, that’s to be expected. But we got to have the mindset and approach that we want to get stops coming out of the first and third quarter.”
Next up: vs. Portland, Monday, 7:30 p.m.