Not everything went right for Clippers: 5 takeaways from win over Lakers

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LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 6, 2021: LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) is fouled by Los Angeles Lakers guard Alex Caruso (4) as he drives to the basket in the second half at Staples Center on May 6, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is fouled by Lakers guard Alex Caruso on a layup Thursday night at Staples Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Five takeaways from the Clippers’ 118-94 win against the Lakers, a victory that, for the time being, moved them into third place in the Western Conference, half a game ahead of Denver:

1. Tyronn Lue stayed focused on what could keep the Clippers from reaching their ultimate goal, not what fueled their big night.

Having just seen his team win its first game by 20 or more points since March 29, the Clippers’ coach was irked by what had gone wrong more than he was pleased with what had produced the rout.

“We just were disinterested with the game, I thought,” Lue said. “We didn’t really respect the game. Especially in the second half. No matter who you are playing, you still got to work on your habits, you still got to do the right thing. And we talked about those guys not having ballhandlers and they have 11 turnovers and we have 22, they score 30 points off of them.

“So we've just got to be more professional with what we are trying to do and trying to build here, no matter who we are playing.”

The Clippers were “just messing around too much” in committing a season-high 22 turnovers, he said. Six came from offensive fouls, a sign of overaggression more than carelessness, but that still left 16 others and they left Lue clearly frustrated — not because it had put the Clippers in jeopardy against the shorthanded Lakers but because it spoke to a casual focus that can’t be repeated during the postseason.

“You have a good team, sometimes you can get bored and depends on who you're playing, but we're playing for something bigger than that, and we've got to work on our habits, we've got to get our rhythm, we've got to get our flow,” Lue said. “We only have five games left, so we can't afford to mess around with the game. And tonight, I thought that this was one of the games where we got up early and then after that we just kind of messed around, you know, for the rest of the game, and we can't do that.”

Said Paul George: “Regardless of the outcome tonight, we've still got to do a better job as a team of taking care of it.”

2. How much was Thursday night truly a playoff preview?

With five games to play, the Clippers are half a game ahead of Denver, though the Nuggets own the tiebreaker should they finish even in the standings. Though they still own a slim shot at finishing second, the Clippers have a 53% chance of finishing third and a 36% chance at fourth, per playoffstatus.com, which calculates seeding probabilities. The Lakers, meanwhile, are given a 7% chance of finishing fifth, which would pit them against the fourth-seeded team in the first round, and a 44% chance of finishing sixth, in which case they would face the third seed.

The Lakers have a 49% chance to finish seventh and in the play-in round. The Lakers' game Friday against Portland, a matchup between teams holding identical 37-29 records, will provide more clarity. The winner will be in sixth place and hold the playoff tiebreaker.

3. Playing his third game since returning from an injury to his right foot, Kawhi Leonard described the foot as “good” after playing 30 minutes.

“I’m ready to go,” he said.

He’s just not ready to play an entire quarter. Leonard’s usual substitution pattern calls for him to play the whole first quarter, but he’s not yet cleared for that workload, Lue said. It was why Lue opted to rest George and Leonard together while playing a five-man bench unit, instead of his usual staggering of the All-Stars’ minutes.

“Once he is cleared to be able to play the whole quarter, we will go back to him finishing the first and third and letting [Paul George] play with the second unit to start the quarter,” Lue said.

4. Center DeMarcus Cousins says he is about halfway through understanding the offense. Yet, for as much as he still has to learn, he has risen into the backup center role in part because his preexisting relationship with Rajon Rondo allows the pair to operate a two-man game they’ve built over the course of playing together for years, independent of any playbook.

Cousins is shooting 58.8% off of 59 passes from Rondo. He’s the ninth teammate of Rondo this season who has received at least 50 passes from the guard, but no one has as high of a shooting percentage.

“We’ve been on four teams together,” Cousins said. “I mean, our chemistry is a pretty natural thing. Usually you just make a cut or make a move and Rondo, he does the hard part, which is get the pass to you. Easy part is just finishing. Playing with a guy like Rondo, he’s always going to make the job easy for you.”

Lue wants to keep that valuable connection together. Asked whether there was a possibility either the veteran big man or point guard could become starters, Lue said Cousins and Rondo will continue to play off of the bench.

That means that the starting guard in the postseason will either be the current starter, Reggie Jackson, or Patrick Beverley, who held the role before injuries to his right knee and left hand.

5. One downside of playing Rondo and Cousins together is the lack of offensive spacing on the court: Lineups featuring those two have made just 34.3% of their three-pointers. The Clippers have been outscored by 10 points in their 88 minutes together, and lineups including both have scored 105.2 points per 100 possessions while giving up 111.

Knowing that, Lue changed his usual rotation and turned to Luke Kennard and his 45% three-point shooting as one of the first guards off the bench in place of Terance Mann, who didn’t play until four minutes remained in what was a 22-point game.

How did it work? One lineup featuring Kennard, Cousins, Rondo, Beverley and Nicolas Batum scored 10 points in six minutes but was outscored by seven points. The same lineup except with George in Beverley's place scored nine points in three minutes and outscored the Lakers by three.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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