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When it comes to postseason consistency, the Clippers are in a class by themselves.
No other team has fallen behind so immediately and so frequently.
Trailing 2-1 in their best-of-seven second-round matchup with Utah ahead of Monday’s fourth game, the Clippers have a long way to go before grabbing control of this series. To do so, they need Marcus Morris’ shooting, more star-level production from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the kind of crisp down-the-stretch execution that swamped Utah in their Game 3 victory Saturday.
Yet any discussion regarding the Clippers’ improvements begins with their false starts. They have fallen behind after tipoff during each of their 10 postseason games, scoring their first points on average 91 seconds into each game, compared to just 21 seconds for their opponents.
Their matchups with Utah haven’t truly begun until they have trailed by eight. Utah led by eight within the first 2:36 of Game 1, the first 1:42 of Game 2 and 74 seconds into Game 3.
"We have to do something, we have to adjust right away, we can't wait being down eight, 10, 12, depends, whatever, before we get a reaction," forward Nicolas Batum said.
Amid a postseason in which the Clippers have proven it is not how they start but finish, such slow starts might be shrugged off as a hurdle from which they have regularly recovered. Their first-quarter net rating of plus-2.2, the difference in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, ranks seventh-best among 16 playoff teams, with a defensive rating eight points worse than their overall rating. It has often been offset by their second quarters, with their net rating of plus-15.5.
"I'm impressed with the recovery but we have to get off to good starts," coach Tyronn Lue said Sunday. "We can't go down 10-0, 14-3. We can't continue to keep doing that and dig ourselves a hole and you can't expect someone to try to get you back in the game.
"We're not getting stops early in the game to get out in transition and trying to get some easy baskets. We've been talking about it all playoffs and we've got to do a better job at that."
For all the ground made up during those second quarters, their starts to second halves have forced them to play catch-up as well. The Clippers’ minus-14.8 rating in third quarters ranks third-worst in the postseason, and facing Utah, it’s even worse, at minus-16.2.
Those figures cut against their trends from the regular season, when the Clippers produced the league’s seventh-best first-quarter net rating (plus-6.3) and second-best in the third (plus-8.4).
"Coming out in the third quarter, that's the one that we really have to establish," Lue said. "All championship teams, they have great third quarters. They come out of the locker room with the adjustments and understand what they need to do and they execute."
Inevitably, the Clippers have often found their rhythm. The same cannot be said in this series for Morris, a 47% three-point shooter during the regular season who also made 17 of his 32 threes during the last six games against Dallas. Through three games against Utah he has made one of his 16 attempts from deep.
Lue has known Morris for years, long before he joined the Clippers’ staff last season, a relationship that allowed the coach to broach the elephant in the room after Game 2.
“Make a damn shot, you know?” Lue recalled saying Saturday. “… I don't care if you make one or miss them, but you're the second-best three-point shooter in the league all season long. Don't think about it. Don't let it get to you mentally. Just shoot the basketball.”
Morris did make three of the five shots he attempted in the Game 3 win — with both misses on three-pointers — but it matched the fewest shots he has taken this postseason. He didn’t play during Game 3's final 16 minutes, the first time he had not appeared during a fourth quarter of a playoff game since Game 1 of last season’s second round against Denver because the Clippers’ lead didn’t necessitate his return, Lue said.
The Clippers survived without Morris’ scoring because of the presence of other role players, some of whom had already figured heavily in this series, and one who had not. Guard Reggie Jackson has made 45% of his three-pointers, proving his instant offense against Dallas was no short-term blip, and reserve guard Luke Kennard made two of his four three-pointers, bringing his deep shooting to seven of 11 against Utah.
Two days after Lue declared reserve Terance Mann out of the rotation, the second-year wing played 22 minutes with seven points and four rebounds. The Clippers outscored Utah by 21 when Mann played.
“A kid that can do anything and everything that you ask of him on the floor,” George said. “Huge luxury to have a young guy that is just ready at all times.”
Ready at all times? That’s the Clippers’ challenge too.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.