Clippers need to catch fire before their season is extinguished

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Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, October 30, 2022 - LA Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (1) is stripped of the ball by New Orleans Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. (22) in the first half at Crypto.com Arena. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson (1) is stripped of the ball by Pelicans forward Larry Nance Jr. while driving to the basket in the first half Sunday at Crypto.com Arena. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

For too long, the Clippers have had a “wait ‘til next year” mindset. Wait for some player’s injury to heal, someone’s slump to pass, a young player to blossom.

This was supposed to be that elusive, championship-contending next year, with Kawhi Leonard returning from knee surgery to team again with Paul George as the tentpoles of a deep, productive offense and well-schooled defense.

The Clippers were a popular preseason pick to finish atop the West. Imagining them battling for a championship ring didn’t seem at all ridiculous, if they could avoid injuries.

Yet Leonard’s stiff knee has kept him out of the lineup more often than he has been in, a situation that’s expected to continue indefinitely. George, recently battling an upper respiratory ailment and admittedly slow to catch his breath, has been a shadow of himself. Both tentpoles have wobbled, taking the Clippers’ circus down with them.

Their 112-91 surrender to the energetic New Orleans Pelicans at Crypto.com Arena on Sunday was the Clippers’ fourth consecutive loss in a season that’s getting uglier by the day. They plunged to season lows in points and shooting percentage (41.9%). They made only 11 of 39 three-point attempts and scored merely 15 points in the third quarter, while Zion Williamson (21 points, 12 rebounds) and New Orleans ran off with a game that had been tied at halftime.

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Last season, when they knew Leonard probably wouldn’t be able to contribute much, if at all, the Clippers compensated for his absence by coming up with a variety of offensive options. They were scrappy. They consistently battled.

That fire has been missing this season. They urgently need to get it blazing again, to stop playing meekly on defense and tentatively on offense and play up to the level they insist they’re capable of reaching.

“Blind eyes could see that we’re getting outplayed,” said forward Marcus Morris Sr., who scored 12 points Sunday after missing two games following a death in his family.

“It doesn’t have nothing to do with skill. It doesn’t have nothing to do with defense. We’re getting outplayed. They [opponents] are playing harder.”

The Clippers will be without Leonard for the fourth straight game and fifth time in seven games when they finish back-to-back games at home against Houston on Monday. His absence Sunday didn’t explain the Clippers’ poor shooting, their mental mistakes or their 15 turnovers.

“We’ve still got a job to do. As one of the leaders of this team, still got a job to do, regardless of who’s playing, who’s not playing,” George said. “We’re just not doing what we need to do. Point blank. Period.

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“They’re a team that came in and shot the ball well from the three, general field goals, all around the court. There are teams that just shoot the ball well against us. We’re not playing defense that we need to be playing, and I think it’s carrying over offensively. We’re not getting anything out of it on the offensive end as well.”

It wasn’t so much that New Orleans shot well, or that Williamson was a force, or that CJ McCollum scored a game-high 22 points.

“It’s just too easy,” George said. “The games are too easy for the other team, and we’ve got to address that.”

Clippers guard John Wall collides with Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado on a drive to the basket.

Clippers guard John Wall collides with Pelicans guard Jose Alvarado in the first half Sunday at Crypto.com Arena. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Where to begin?

“I think we’ve just got to raise the intensity. Again, it comes down to identity, who we’re going to be. And with that we’ve got to raise the intensity on both sides,” George said. “And it starts with me. I was poor tonight. Been poor the past couple games.”

George, carrying a cough as a lingering souvenir of his illness, scored 14 points on five-for-19 shooting, including two for eight from three-point range. He scored only 10 points in the finale of the Clippers’ two-game visit to Oklahoma City after having missed the first of those games while he was ill.

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“I’ll get it together. I’m committed to my work. I’m committed to this team succeeding,” George said. “It starts with me. I’ve got to get better. I’ve got to be better. But then past that, we’ve got to collectively be a better team and again have an identity when we’re on that court.”

Leonard’s limitations when his knee permits him to play and the need to recalibrate the game plan when he must sit out loom as issues coach Tyronn Lue will juggle for a while. And those aren’t the only problems. “We’re not a very good basketball team right now,” Lue said, “and we’ve got to change that.”

It’s early in the season, but they’re building bad habits and don’t have an identity they can rally around. “We’ve never had a team this stacked, I don’t think, ever in history, a team this stacked as far as veterans and a lot of young guys that can play significant minutes. And have played significant minutes,” Morris said.

“We’re trying to do something special here. At the end of the day, we all have to sacrifice. We all have to be better. We all have to hold each other accountable. The type of team we have, I know I keep saying it, we’re stacked, man. We have to buy in to the goal, and that’s trying to win the championship.

“There’s no way we should be losing to these teams. Regardless of how many games we play, who’s out, who’s not playing, there’s no excuse.”

This is one time that waiting ’til next year just won’t cut it.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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