Slow start dooms Clippers in loss to Cavaliers

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Clippers guard Paul George drives to the basket past Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland and forward Lauri Markkanen.
Clippers guard Paul George drives to the basket past Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, left, and forward Lauri Markkanen, right, in the first half at the Staples Center on Wednesday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

There were 50 seconds left to play in Wednesday’s fourth quarter when a member of the Clippers’ hype squad lifted an oversized sign bearing the words “CLIPPERS WIN!” over his shoulder and carried it away from the court inside Staples Center, toward storage.

There was clearly no need for it.

In one of the most dysfunctional offensive performances in coach Tyronn Lue’s tenure, the Clippers watched Cleveland make only three of 20 three-pointers and shoot just 40% overall from the field and yet still comfortably coast to their third consecutive impressive win, following victories against Atlanta and Denver that have injected life into a franchise that has struggled mightily since firing Lue in 2018.

The 92-79 loss dropped the Clippers to 1-3 and continued the concern about why a team returning so many pieces from one of last season’s most dangerous offenses has consistently struggled to make shots and move the ball.

“Yeah, they beat us up pretty good all around,” guard Reggie Jackson said.

The Clippers shot 35% from the field and made nine of 41 three-pointers (22%). Since Lue took over last season, they have shot a lower overall field goal percentage just one other time. Paul George missed all eight of his three-pointers and didn’t shoot a free throw en route to only 12 points. He said afterward that his legs felt “heavy.”

Staring at a box score in front of him, George said, “it’s a lot of stuff that’s glaring.”

Cleveland’s Collin Sexton scored 26 points, eventually quieting a fan in the grandstand’s lower bowl who repeatedly yelled at the young guard. After one such incident, Sexton drove the lane for a basket and drew a foul.

Nicolas Batum and Jackson each scored 16 points for the Clippers, but a 14-point first quarter was a bellwether of the game that felt like a blowout. Lue called his team’s offensive flow, or lack thereof, “nasty.”

“I just thought we didn’t execute,” Lue said. “We just didn’t have it tonight. That’s to be expected but not game five or whatever game it is.”

It was game four, and already a trend has begun for what should otherwise be a lineup full of highly efficient shooters. The Clippers entered Wednesday with the league’s sixth-worst accuracy on shots when the closest defender is between four and six feet away. Though they ranked in the league’s upper half with the closest defender six or more feet away, those shots account for a much smaller portion of their offense.

Lue has generally been happy with the quality of his team’s shots, but not Wednesday, frustrated by what he called overdribbling and too many shots off the dribble, the product of facing a starting lineup featuring three players nearly seven feet tall each.

Cleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley battles Clippers center Isaiah Hartenstein for control of a loose ball.
Cleveland Cavaliers center Evan Mobley, left, battles Clippers center Isaiah Hartenstein for control of a loose ball in the first half at the Staples Center Wednesday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Guard Eric Bledsoe has made 14 of his 22 shots within 10 feet this season but has struggled mightily outside point-blank range. His decision to take a pull-up three-pointer in the third quarter, early in the shot clock, was particularly ill-advised, costing the Clippers a possession when they had trimmed their 15-point first-half deficit to just four.

“We kind of let them off the hook and forced ourself into tough shots,” Jackson said. “It was a long day after that.”

Said George: “I thought tonight we got stagnant, and with their length it kind of just played into their hands.”

When the Clippers weren’t missing 10 of their first 11 three-pointers, they were committing eight turnovers.

Cavaliers rookie Evan Mobley, a star last season at USC, finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds and helped the Cavaliers grab a stunning 21 more rebounds than the Clippers.

Mobley snatched Justise Winslow’s floater out of the air barely a foot after it left his hand. Jackson found a cutting Isaiah Hartenstein for what looked like an open path to a dunk, only for Jackson to run into Hartenstein before a shot could go up. When Jackson collected the rebound, his shot was blocked by Kevin Love.

Jackson made three of his eight three-pointers to continue his own difficult shooting start to this season. He said he needed to be more consistent.

George called it “deflating” to see the team’s half-court offense devolve into one-on-one matchups, saying Cleveland hadn’t been forced to work as hard as needed defensively.

“After a night like this,” George said. “The only way is to get better.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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