Before they left their subdued locker room Thursday night inside Paycom Center, the shine from their preseason championship aspirations temporarily smudged by a 2-3 start, the Clippers were steadfast that one week into the season is not enough time to begin panicking.
But, they quickly added, it is enough time to warrant changes.
To the way they defend at the point of attack.
To the way they turn the ball over more than any other team.
Especially, wing Paul George said, to the way they’ve practiced.
All of it and more is under scrutiny after a 118-110 loss to the Thunder that completed a two-game sweep by a franchise expected to be near the top of next summer’s draft lottery.
Laden with veterans, the Clippers have tried taking the long view during their three-game losing streak, with an acknowledgment that Kawhi Leonard’s status remains unknown and Marcus Morris Sr. remains away from the team while grieving the loss of a loved one.
But there was an explicit call for urgency from multiple corners of the locker room, as well.
“We got to fix this quickly,” said guard Reggie Jackson. “I think the beauty about us being older and playing multiple seasons is that we know we have a long time so we’re not gonna necessarily panic but it is urgent that we put our foot on the gas.”
George, who said he had been in bed sick for most of the previous four days, barely took part in the morning shootaround and still looked under the weather in scoring 10 points with seven rebounds and three assists in 31 minutes. He hopes his most lasting contribution will come from speaking up afterward and addressing teammates with what has concerned him about the team’s lacking practice intensity and focus.
“It’s definitely urgency right now,” George said. “It is not a concerning urgency but it is an urgency that we need just by building the right habits. We are not going to be perfect, there is always going to be something we can do better on a nightly basis but urgency from the standpoint that we got to start, we can’t have the same mistakes night after night, we got to start building towards the team we want to be and start forming that team now.”
The Clippers, he continued, are “repeat offenders,” making the same mistakes of allowing too many offensive rebounds (13, for 21 Thunder points), too many turnovers (20, for 31 Thunder points) and too many communication breakdowns. “P had a message for us for sure,” said Jackson, who scored 18 points and looked by far his sharpest of this season. “We gotta continue to build great habits. You know it’s a marathon but we can’t wait too long to get this ship righted.”
The Clippers trailed by 18 in the first half, but a resurgent second quarter led by Jackson, John Wall and Terance Mann erased the deficit and created a seven-point third quarter lead. For the first time this season, every guard clicked: Norman Powell, off to a dreadful shooting start, drove baseline for a dunk over Kenrich Williams on his way to 21 points, making nine of his 15 shots.
Luke Kennard came off the bench to score 10 points. Mann had six points, making more plays than his box score showed, and Wall had 17 points. In the first half, the Clippers outscored the Thunder by 17 in Wall’s 11 minutes. In the second half, Wall dunked so viciously in transition that one NBA scout watching the game said it looked like “the old John Wall from Washington.”
Then, like their promising 2-0 start to this season, it all unraveled in two minutes in a string of consecutive possessions that ended with offensive foul, a miss, a second offensive foul, another miss, a third offensive foul and a turnover.
“We got to play smarter,” said center Ivica Zubac, whose 18 rebounds were a career high, to go with 12 points. “We got to limit our turnovers, we got to be better on the boards, the box outs, better on rotations on defense.
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t come in here and win these games no matter who’s missing. I feel like we’re far from where we want to be but it’s still game five, a lot of time.”
Wall felt the team had shown glimpses of who it can be during its practices, emphasizing the defensive communication that he says has been present. But in games the words go away, left by finger pointing.
“It’s still early, still 2-3 but we have to have a sense of urgency … We should never be out-competed,” Wall said. “No matter who we put on the floor we should always have a chance to win and I believe that and I think we kind of didn’t do that.”
Who are the Clippers, after five games? “I mean with all the s— going on, it’s hard to see,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “It is just hard to figure out right now.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.