Tyronn Lue doesn’t expect perfection. He can live with plays that do not work and shots that do not go in.
But what he needs is purpose, and too often throughout this season’s first six weeks he had plays ended before they could even begin by cramped spacing borne out of confusion, players freelancing outside of the offense and inexplicable turnovers.
“Random basketball,” Lue called it, before the Clippers’ 102-90 victory in Portland.
It has happened enough to become not so much random but gratingly regular, with Lue counting sometimes 17 wasted possessions a game. In the second quarter alone of Saturday’s loss to Sacramento, the coach found eight when the Clippers couldn’t even begin their assigned set, let alone score out of it.
“I don’t think we’re good enough right now to play random basketball without getting to our spots, without pushing, pushing the pace, getting to our spots,” he said. “And then once you run to play, now you got to play after that play. And that’s what we got good at last year.”
The Clippers (13-12) have a ways to go before they approach last year’s efficiency and accuracy, a gap underscored again by another slog Monday despite facing what has been the league’s worst defense over the past month — and that was before injuries cost it its starting backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, plus a top reserve guard and a promising forward.
Gifted 18 Trail Blazers turnovers, the Clippers translated them into only 19 points. They made only 30% of their three-point tries. Paul George, whose three-point shooting had cooled to just 27% in his 16 previous games entering Monday, missed all three of his deep attempts. Guard Reggie Jackson made seven of his 19 shots, the sixth time in his last seven games making fewer than 50% of his shots.
“We just had to grind this win out,” Lue said.
Yet when the Clippers needed crisp execution, leading by two with 2 minutes 49 seconds to play, they finally played as Lue has expected.
A dunk by George was followed by a Portland turnover, an elbow jumper by George and a free throw from Isaiah Hartenstein, after he was caught in the neck by an elbow from Portland center Jusuf Nurkic.
Given the ball back after the flagrant foul, the Clippers ran perhaps their best-run possession of the night, when Hartenstein slipped a screen and was found for a dunk by a Jackson assist. In barely two minutes, a two-point Clippers lead had grown to nine, and a badly needed win was secured.
“Credit to the guys,” said Luke Kennard, who scored 13 of his 15 points in the first half. “Staying patient, staying with it, trusting what we were doing.”
Kennard was central to the Clippers’ latest attempt to generate offensive rhythm, placed in the starting lineup for the first time to replace a two-center lineup used the previous three games, as Lue sought more offensive spacing. Kennard drilled two early three-pointers.
“That’s been one of our key teaching points of getting in the paint, making the right reads, kicking the ball out to the open guy and getting the right shots,” he said. “I thought we did a really good job of that tonight especially to open the game.”
Serge Ibaka, the starter who went to the bench, and who hadn’t been used since Saturday’s first half, played seven minutes, used when foul trouble required Lue to find a deterrent against Nurkic, who had his way for a season-high 31 points.
Asked what Ibaka’s role in the rotation is moving forward Lue said, “We’ll see.” Kennard had played with the team’s starters late in games previously, and said it did not take long to find comfort.
George scored 21 points for the Clippers, scoring as many field goals (four) in the final quarter as all of Portland combined. He hit “big-time shots, as usual,” Kennard said.
“There’ll obviously be some clips that we can show where we weren’t in the right positions but for the most part, I thought we did a better job, especially when you compare tonight against the Sac game,” George said. “I thought that was something that we knew going into tonight that we needed to be better at.”
Lue’s attempts to mix and match lineups to spark some sort of offensive rhythm was evident not only in his choice for the starting lineup but his first substitution. Eric Bledsoe, the former starting point guard whose accuracy has ebbed and flowed and scored four points in 16 minutes, was not the first reserve to play when Kennard went to the bench midway through the first quarter; it was Brandon Boston Jr. instead.
By playing Boston alongside George, Ivica Zubac, and Marcus Morris Sr., the Clippers bet on adding shooting and length while attempting to protect the rookie wing’s defensive shortcomings. Sure enough, Portland’s Tony Snell, almost exclusively a three-point shooter, cut across Boston’s face for a basket. But then Boston answered with his second three-pointer in 23 seconds, and the Clippers led by seven. Boston scored 13 points.
“He’s a professional, he wants to win, had no problem with it at all,” Lue said of Bledsoe’s handling of a reserve role.