Clippers shake off slow start to beat Grizzlies

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Andrew Greif
·4 min read
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Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant, left, drives past Los Angeles Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. (8) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant drives past Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. during the first half on Wednesday at Staples Center. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Before the point guard not on the roster only three days earlier sparked a dominant fourth quarter, before guard Luke Kennard made nearly everything in sight, and before the 117-105 victory was complete — their 10th win in their last 11 games — anywhere the Clippers looked during Wednesday’s first half, there seemed to be a bad omen.

Memphis’ Ja Morant, maybe the league’s fastest point guard but also one of the position’s least reliable shooters from deep, was zooming into the paint at will and knocking down a career-high-tying four three-pointers.

Jaren Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies’ sensational 6-foot-11 big man, was back in the lineup for the first time since a knee injury ended his second season in August. His first shot was a three-pointer that caromed off the backboard and went in, as if a returning gift from the basketball gods.

The Clippers gave up a season-high 39 points in the first quarter, and Memphis made nine of its 18 first-half three-pointers.

There was turnover everywhere: Nine committed by the Clippers during the first half, and a lineup missing three who had been instrumental in Tuesday’s victory in Portland: Paul George and Reggie Jackson sat because of rest, while Rajon Rondo was sidelined because of inflammation in his right wrist. That wasn’t counting the expected absences of Kawhi Leonard (foot), Patrick Beverley (hand) and Serge Ibaka (back).

Their third substitute off the bench was Yogi Ferrell, the point guard signed to a 10-day contract Monday. Asked how much of his offense he could feasibly run given the mismatched rotations and new addition in the backcourt, coach Tyronn Lue held his thumb and index finger about an inch apart before tipoff.

Four minutes into the second quarter, their rotation got even thinner when backup center DeMarcus Cousins was hit in the mouth by Jaren Jackson Jr.’s left elbow and suffered a lacerated lip.

And yet anywhere the Grizzlies (29-28) looked in the second half, there were ominous signs for the visitors who once led by 18. Like Cousins, who returned late in the third quarter, the Clippers (42-19) had not gone away.

They took their first lead, at 77-75, on free throws by Terance Mann with 3:17 to play in the third and led by five at the quarter’s end thanks to the kind of hustle and unlikely connection that could have happened only on a night with such attrition.

If Ferrell had digested little of the team’s playbook, he knew after outhustling Memphis’ Brandon Clarke for a long offensive rebound to loft a perfect pass to Mann for a dunk that elicited as much noise as possible from a Staples Center crowd of 1,782.

The rally was pure effort generated by an imperfect rotation, and only the latest example this season, when the Clippers have stolen multiple victories despite missing multiple starters.

“It just comes down to heart,” Lue said. “Want to compete for 48 minutes, no matter who we are playing, no matter who is playing. And we don’t want to make excuses. A lot of teams are down players, and they’re finding ways to keep playing and keep competing. That is what we want to do.”

Cousins took three charges, to go with his six points and 10 rebounds in 14 minutes.

“Those are winning plays,” Lue said. “You need those kinds of plays, especially for a veteran guy who is the caliber of player that he is.”

The Clippers attempted a season-high 36 free throws. Twenty-four hours after missing four of his five three-pointers in Portland, and shooting only 34% from deep this month, Kennard answered by tying his career high with six three-pointers, on only seven attempts. The last was a dagger after dribbling over the top of an Ivica Zubac screen with three minutes to play for a 12-point lead on his way to a season-high 28 points.

“We got guys that can play,” Kennard said. “It goes all the way down the bench.”

Ferrell accounted for eight of his team’s first 10 points of the fourth quarter — he finished with eight points, seven assists and zero turnovers in 20 minutes — and Lue, saying he was coaching by “feel,” closed the game with Ferrell over Mann.

Marcus Morris added 25 points for a team that, given multiple reasons to concede against a hungry opponent fighting for its playoff life, nonetheless improved to 11-1 on the second night of a back-to-back and has now won seven straight at home.

“I think we kind of built a culture over this year,” Mann said, “where everybody believes in each other.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.