April 15, 2024

Tyronn Lue called the Clippers ‘soft’ just in time for them to rediscover toughness

When the Indiana Pacers beat the LA Clippers 133-116 on Mar. 25, it sounded like Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was fed up. He was tired of talking about effort. He was tired of talking about sacrifice. He was tired of talking about identity.

The Clippers had lost for the sixth time in their past nine games. They dropped into a tie for fourth place in the Western Conference standings with the New Orleans Pelicans, who hold the head-to-head series tiebreaker.

Lue had a button to push.

“Do we have an identity?” Lue asked rhetorically. “I think yeah, we’re soft. That can be an identity, if you want to call it that. We got to be tougher, mentally and physically.”

Calmly but directly, he challenged his team in a place where there wasn’t much gray area.

“It’s not going to be about you, it’s not going to be about how you do, it’s about what the team does,” he said.

The Clippers responded to Lue’s comments with action. And they did so by going as far from home as they have since the NBA trade deadline, uncorking their first three-game win streak since Feb. 5.

To begin the road trip, the Clippers escaped Philadelphia with a 108-107 win, which was arguably the most hostile territory the Clippers have played in all season due to James Harden’s return. Two nights later, the Clippers secured another close road win against the Orlando Magic despite squandering double-digit second-half leads twice. And on Easter Sunday, the Clippers held on for a 130-118 win against the Charlotte Hornets despite allowing 23 3s.

“Getting a win however you’ve got to get it is the most important thing, but we’ve still got a lot to build on and get better with,” Lue said in Charlotte. “We’ll take the win. The Philly and the Orlando games were two good games that we needed – two gritty wins, tough wins on the road. And then tonight, just sticking with it even though we didn’t do a good job defensively.”

Even with the three wins in Philadelphia, Orlando and Charlotte, no one should confuse the Clippers as a team that has fixed all of their problems.

Prior to the Clippers’ most recent victories out East, they were the last team in the NBA without a three-game winning or losing streak since the trade deadline. They haven’t approached the elite level play they established from the beginning of December through early February, a stretch where the Clippers won 26 of 31 games and had a better point differential than any team in the West.

Eight teams in the Western Conference had better win percentages than the Clippers in March (.588), while 10 West teams had a better average point-differential this month than the Clippers (0.4).

But at this point, winning games by any means necessary is important. The wins in Philadelphia and Orlando, in particular, were games that required LA’s All-Stars to take on roles that demonstrates mental and physical toughness.

In Philadelphia, Paul George got his first 10-rebound game of the season. In that same game, Kawhi Leonard overcame a brutal start, missing 12 of his first 14 shots to make his last five attempts. Leonard’s last two baskets were go-ahead and-1s, including the game’s final points with 15.7 seconds remaining:

In Orlando, Leonard bounced back and carried the offense with 29 points on 12-of-21 shooting from the field. It was Leonard’s first game with at least 20 shot attempts in 26 days.

He also added 11 rebounds, marking his first double-digit rebounding game since Feb. 4 in Miami. The Clippers are 8-0 when Leonard (4-0), George (1-0), James Harden (2-0) or Terance Mann (1-0) get at least 10 rebounds in a game this season.

“We’re all trying to make a group effort in getting one stop and limiting a team’s second-chance points,” Leonard said Friday in Orlando.

“We just got to rebound, period,” George said in Orlando. “Every team is going to crash against us because we do have a smaller lineup. If we can limit extra possessions and second-chance shots or second-chance points, that’s only going to help and improve our chances to win.”

While Leonard struggled in Philadelphia before a big close, George was way off to start the Orlando game, missing eight of his first nine shots. The Clippers went more than 5 1/2 minutes without scoring in the fourth quarter, allowing Orlando to unleash a 13-0 run. But following a Leonard miss out of a timeout, Harden chased down an offensive rebound and George drove a Paolo Banchero closeout for a layup. That play demonstrated a different kind of effort and toughness: getting paint touches.

The Clippers are at their best offensively when their best players put their heads down and get inside, either to score for themselves, draw fouls, or kick out for open shots.

“Layup was big, that helped,” George said when discussing how he needed to stay aggressive despite a rough stretch. “And then a 3 after that, kind of was able to see the ball go in and catch a rhythm from there which led me to be able to make the last shot for our team.”

The final basket of the Orlando game was another example of George doing the hard work, doing what a player of his ilk is supposed to do in big moments.

Instead of settling for a jumper, George got two feet in the paint, much like Leonard did on a previous possession to put the Clippers up by one point. In this case, George was matched up with the longer Jonathan Isaac, but George was not fazed. Watch as Leonard directs Harden to get to the near side corner to allow George the space to isolate:

Offense came easily for the Clippers in Charlotte. George had a season-high 41 points while making a season-high eight 3s, Leonard added 23 points, and Ivica Zubac had a season-best 24 points on 7-of-8 shooting from the field while outscoring Charlotte 10-7 from the free-throw line by himself.

The Clippers’ 130-118 win was a reminder that this team is still capable of awesome offensive performances. LA is now 11-0 this season when it scores at least 130 points.

Missing in the scoring exploits in Charlotte was Harden, who made only one shot while dealing with a sprained finger on his right (non-shooting) hand. Harden acknowledged after the win in Philadelphia that he hasn’t been playing as well, which has been the cause for a lot of angst this month with the Clippers.

Harden’s scoring remained a concern on this road trip. He scored just 17 points combined in Orlando and Charlotte while making only 4-of-15 field goals and 2-of-10 3s. His three field goal attempts in Charlotte were the fewest he’s ever attempted in a game in which he played at least 30 minutes in his career, regular or postseason. Harden hasn’t scored 20 points in any game since leaving Houston on March 6.

Harden did find contribute in other ways, though. In Orlando, Harden had eight rebounds and four steals, forcing Banchero turnovers on back-to-back possessions in the final minute that the Clippers turned into the deciding points.

In Charlotte, Harden compiled 10 assists without a turnover against the Hornets, only his third game all season with no turnovers and the seventh time in his career where he had at least 10 assists without a turnover.

Perhaps the most critical element to the Clippers getting through March has been health. Russell Westbrook’s return was the final piece of a difficult month that saw only one Clipper play all 17 games (Amir Coffey). Since his return, Westbrook has been kept under 20 minutes in all four games, but he is still averaging 3.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists while playing only 18.3 minutes per game.

Leonard told The Athletic that his hands will be fine despite him repeatedly favoring them over the last two weeks after hard landings. George has felt well physically and is starting to back it up with his best play of the season. Harden hasn’t been convincingly well physically due to one malady or another, but he has been playing and off the injury report.

Now, all Lue has to do is make the most of his roster while hoping to secure homecourt advantage, and at the very least stay out of the Play-In Tournament. March was rocky, but the Clippers also secured a 10-win month for the third time this season.

“I mean, we got to be better,” Lue said in Charlotte. “But we still got a lot of room for improvement. We understand that. But every game is different. Teams play you different, rotations are different, everything is just different. You just got to win games any kind of way you can win games.”

(Photo: Adam Pantozzi / NBAE via Getty Images)