First, Serge Ibaka danced the robot, arms and feet jutting in sharp, mechanical bursts. Shuffling into the team’s pregame huddle in front of fellow Clippers center Ivica Zubac, in a tunnel just off Capital One Arena’s court, he switched to a Michael Jackson impression that made Zubac laugh hard enough to turn away.
The end of Ibaka’s routine beget another from forward Justise Winslow. The forward hopped on two feet, stretched out his arms and flexed them like a rolling wave before offering handshakes. The Clippers could not contain their laughter, again.
Midway through their eight-game road trip, the Clippers’ sense of humor remains intact.
So has their resilience.
In a two-week span that had seen them win after trailing by 25 points, against Denver, and 24 points, against Philadelphia, the Clippers pulled off a franchise-record 35-point comeback to beat Washington, 116-115, eclipsing the 31-point comeback from the 2019 postseason.
The Clippers led for just 1.9 seconds, after Luke Kennard made a three-pointer and was fouled with that much time remaining in a chaotic fourth quarter. He made the free throw and Washington, without a timeout, threw a long inbounds pass that tipped off the fingers of Montrezl Harrell — the former Clipper who was part of the 2019 comeback — out of bounds.
The buzzer sounded and coach Tyronn Lue stalked off the court, his brow furrowed as he slapped hands, his words unable to make out underneath his mask but his emotion apparent for all to see. The Clippers danced like they had before tipoff, celebrating the most improbable win in their history.
Benching starters Reggie Jackson, Zubac and Nicolas Batum the entire second half, Lue put the game in the hands of his reserves. Isaiah Hartenstein and Justise Winslow, a forward, played all of the second-half center minutes.
With Clippers guard Amir Coffey streaking toward the rim in transition for a layup to trim the deficit to just one point, former Clippers center Montrezl Harrell streaked in from behind to block the layup with 1:41 to play. Just 23 seconds later Wizards guard Bradley Beal, who had been rendered mostly invisible for long stretches of the game despite an oft-porous Clippers defense, drilled a three-pointer with 1:18 to play.
That appeared to be enough to hold the Clippers at bay, with even team executives leaving the court, until a five-second violation by Washington allowed the Clippers a chance to tie, which Kennard did with his three.
The comeback erased the team’s first-half stain.
Almost as soon as Tuesday’s first quarter began, the Clippers’ pregame laughter stopped and a laugher began. When the first half had ended, they trailed by 30, tying for this season’s seventh-largest halftime deficit. When their two longest field goal droughts of the first half were combined, the Clippers had been held without a basket for 11 minutes 35 seconds out of a possible 24 minutes.
With Marcus Morris Sr. not with the team because of personal reasons Terance Mann started over Kennard because Lue hoped Mann’s size would improve their rebounding. Except there weren’t many rebounds to grab in the opening minutes as Washington made its first three shots, then its fifth, to lead 9-0. After one defensive miscommunication allowed center Daniel Gafford to run through the paint unimpeded, catch a pass and dunk, Zubac looked quizzically at Nico Batum, his palms up at the breakdown.
Lue had seen enough after six consecutive misses and a 13-2 deficit less than five minutes into the game. He took a timeout and a chair in front of the bench to talk through how his team, so prone to scoring droughts earlier this month before posting the fifth-best offensive rating over their last four games, could tap into their recent offensive resurgence. But when they scored their first basket half the opening quarter was over.
Seeking any kind of help down 17-2, Lue replaced four of his five starters, who outscored the Wizards by six over the rest of the quarter to awaken a previously lifeless start. Isaiah Hartenstein, playing backup center minutes one game after Ibaka claimed that role, threw laser-guided lasses into tight seams and Kennard made as many shots (two) as the entire starting lineup.
The offensive turnaround stopped their, Washington reeling off a 26-2 run over nearly the next seven minutes. By the time the Clippers emerged from their locker room after halftime, Lue had revamped his lineup, starting Eric Bledsoe over Reggie Jackson, Kennard over Batum and Isaiah Hartenstein over Zubac to start the second half. That group outscored the Wizards by six in their first six minutes together, propelling the Clippers to a 40-point quarter after a 36-point first half, and as the deficit reached the teens, reserves began hopping on the sideline like in their pregame huddle.
Suddenly, behind 17-of-29 shooting in the half’s first 14 minutes, the Clippers trailed by only eight with 9:32 to play after a transition layup and foul by Jay Scrubb. They pulled within eight two more times in the next three minutes, but behind two charges drawn by Harrell and a block by the former Clipper, too, Washington held the Clippers at bay each time.
Until, that was, Coffey stepped into a three-pointer with less than four minutes to play to pull within six. A 9-0 run drew then within two with less than three minutes to play.