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HomeSportsClippers' struggles in loss to Jazz go beyond injuries to star players

Clippers’ struggles in loss to Jazz go beyond injuries to star players

Wednesday for the Clippers began with a grimace.

Running around imaginary screens inside Vivint Arena before the team’s morning shootaround, as Kawhi Leonard casually dribbled on the court’s other end while shooting with his left hand in a down-filled parka, Nicolas Batum ran around imaginary screens, testing his sprained ankle.

By the expressions on his face, it quickly became apparent the Clippers would face Utah hours later without the glue of their bench unit. Leading scorer, Paul George, with a sprained elbow, was later ruled out for a fourth consecutive game, as well.

And so the Clippers were back where they were last time they visited Utah, six months ago —short-handed underdogs facing one of the league’s most formidable opponents.

That victory, in Game 5 of a second-round series eventually won by the Clippers in six games, will go down among the most important postseason games in franchise history. Wednesday’s 124-103 loss, in contrast, will likely quickly be forgotten.

But as the Clippers continue to search for who they are this season, six months after their emotional win in Utah paved the way for a postseason breakthrough, this night underscored that progress — and what has hindered it, beyond simply attrition.

The worst transition team in the NBA by at least one metric, the Clippers needed 35 minutes to score their first fast-break point.

Such transition struggles have left them unable to capitalize on opponents’ mistakes, and again Wednesday, it took them 39 minutes to turn a Utah’s seventh turnover into points.

The Clippers’ four-game winning streak ended after being outscored 18-2 in points off turnovers, and Donovan Mitchell (27 points) was one of four Jazz players to finish with at least 20 points, the kind of balanced scoring that has led Utah to lose just once since Thanksgiving.

But the final score belied the scrappiness — and early jump-shooting — that felt like a callback to June. And it centered on the production of a guard who wasn’t even on the roster last season.

In the most promising sign of the night, reserve guard Eric Bledsoe provided a steadying offensive influence with 21 points, equaling his most since Nov. 14. Notoriously unsteady with his jump shot the season’s first month, Bledsoe made eight of his 10 shots and four of his five three-pointers — as many as he’d made in his previous six games combined — while adding eight assists.

And he did it while the Clippers (16-13) were able to eke out only 25 minutes from starting guard Reggie Jackson (15 points, nine assists) as he continued to labor, one game after being knocked to the ground repeatedly, a bruising that has appeared to take its toll.

“I just thought his pace was really good,” coach Tyronn Lue said of Bledsoe. “His pace has been really good for us all season but tonight he found an extra gear.”

The Clippers were also without center Serge Ibaka. Though the team initially attributed his absence Tuesday to “personal reasons,” a person with knowledge of Ibaka’s status said that a person close to Ibaka had tested positive for COVID-19 and that he remained home as a precaution. Wednesday morning Lue said that Ibaka had returned a negative test before the tipoff of Monday’s win against Phoenix, and a second the following day before the team’s charter departed for Utah, but felt he should remain home as COVID cases rise throughout the NBA.

Their absences portended trouble. Yet the short-handed Clippers not only survived but thrived. After Marcus Morris Sr. and Luke Kennard went to the bench after combining to score 21 of the team’s first 25 points, Bledsoe and Isaiah Hartenstein picked up where they left off, combining to make 10 of their 12 shots in the first half for 22 total point.

Despite making just one shot within four feet of the rim in the first 24 minutes, and behind held without a three-pointer for more than eight minutes in the second quarter — this after starting seven of 11 from deep — the Clippers were within six of Utah at halftime.

But not even halfway through the third quarter, the bill came due, outscored by six in the quarter.

After their hot start Morris and Kennard made one of their next 12 shots. The Clippers fell to 1-12 when trailing entering the fourth quarter.

“They got stops and were able to get out in transitions, and got some easy ones,” Lue said. “Defensively we weren’t as sharp as they were.”

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