Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he’s never gone into a game thinking, “Let’s not win.” He’s too competitive, ever since he was as a young boy when he and his teammates would chase their opponents off the court if they were beaten (just ask fellow Chicagoan Isiah Thomas).
“You always want to win,” Rivers said before Sunday’s game with the Brooklyn Nets.
But, apologies to former UCLA football coach Red Sanders, with the playoffs around the corner, winning isn’t the only thing on the Clippers’ minds. And, if Rivers is being totally honest with himself, right now it’s not even at the top of the list.
For the second game in a row, Rivers put health ahead of heroics, sitting one star for rest. But unlike their improbable win Saturday against Damian Lillard and Portland, this Clippers performance wasn’t close to good enough defensively to make up for the reshuffled priorities.
The Clippers sat Paul George, one night after resting Kawhi Leonard, and remained without Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell in a 129-120 loss to Brooklyn. The Nets, who opened the game by making 10 of their first 11 shots, got 27 points from Caris LeVert, 25 from Joe Harris and 21 from Tyler Johnson.
Unlike Saturday, Rivers didn’t pull the plug on his available superstar early. Leonard played 37 minutes and scored 39 points, including 11 straight to start the second half, giving the Clippers a chance in the final minutes.
But the hole the Clippers had to dig out of was too big, and Leonard never had enough help.
Defensively, the Clippers took too long to get engaged in the game, with the Nets putting on a laughably efficient first quarter. Brooklyn made 18 of 21 shots, including eight of 10 from three-point range. LeVert and Harris — undoubtedly the top two names on the Brooklyn scouting report — combined for 33 of the Nets’ 45 points in the quarter.
“We came into the game thinking it was going to be easy,” Clippers center Ivica Zubac said.
The Clippers trailed by as many as 21 in the first quarter, and while they were able to force a tie in the second half, they never could take the lead. The Nets ended up with 20 three-pointers — the fourth consecutive game the Clippers allowed at least 17 of them.
“We keep getting beat off the dribble,” Rivers said in a video interview. “I thought they lived in the paint. And whenever you see a team in the paint, it increases threes. We have to do a better job of controlling the dribble.”
This would qualify as a disappointment if the Clippers didn’t accomplish most of what they set out to do. When Landry Shamet crashed into the basket stanchion, he got back up. When Marcus Morris had his legs clipped on a jumper, he landed softly. And when Leonard threw his hands into a passing lane to cause a deflection, all his digits remained intact and unsprained.
The only potential issue came when backup guard Reggie Jackson tweaked his ankle, though Rivers said he didn’t think it was serious.
And there were bright spots outside of Leonard — sixth-man candidate Lou Williams scored 18 points in his 1,000th career game, rookie Terance Mann scored 14 off the bench and Zubac continued to impress with 15 rebounds, tying a season high.
Rivers wanted to win this game (and the Clippers’ final two seeding games, for that matter), “but you want to keep guys healthy,” he said before the game.
In a perfect world, where the Clippers were whole and injuries didn’t happen, the team would’ve loved to attack Brooklyn with the same kind of ferocity and urgency. But whether the Clippers hang on to the No. 2 seed or if they drop to No. 3, one thing matters more.
“There’s really no homecourt advantage, no fans out there, no travel. I definitely think the healthiest teams usually win it all,” Leonard said. “Guys that have the full roster, have a good bench. Hopefully we can get everybody back and if we can get rhythm going with the guys that are here that usually play, then we’ll see what happens.”
Woike reported from Los Angeles.