One by one, the starting lineup arrived inside Crypto.com Arena.
There was All-Star forward Paul George, in a trucker hat and yellow jacket. Fellow All-Star wing Kawhi Leonard in a blue hat. Center Ivica Zubac, in a polo. And point guard Reggie Jackson, sitting along the baseline in a sweater and backward hat. In all, five Clippers responsible for key roles in the team’s three consecutive wins entering Thursday sat out injured, the team expressing cautious optimism Thursday night that all but Zubac, who suffered a bone bruise in his left knee, could return as soon as Saturday.
In their place, a lineup that had spent just three possessions together became the starters, a new look that raised what by now have become familiar questions for the perpetually incomplete Clippers: On a night when the Clippers look nothing like the team they hope to be come the postseason, relying on rotations that might never be paired together again, what is there to be learned, and what counts as progress?
The question’s relevancy stems from its frequency. With Leonard and point guard John Wall still not playing games on consecutive days and the long nature of the regular season all but guaranteeing more short-handed nights ahead, Thursday will not be the last time the Clippers are unable to add to their sample size of full-strength minutes and, in turn, learn from them.
“As a coach you always think you’re behind,” coach Tyronn Lue said, “and I think we’re really behind offensively, especially how we need to play. And so until we get that continuity, until we get everyone back and everyone healthy, when we get a two or three week sample size of how we want to play offensively, that’ll make me feel a lot better.”
That doesn’t mean the Clippers felt that Thursday, a night devoid of continuity as they fell behind by as many as 31 in a 111-95 loss to Phoenix, was also devoid of lessons.
Lue wanted to see whether rookie big man Moussa Diabate, recently recalled from the G League, could maintain his energy while blitzing Suns ballhandlers and switching onto more experienced, smaller guards.
Lue wanted to test whether Brandon Boston Jr., the second-year wing more known for his offense, could maintain the “defensive mindset” Lue wants to instill. Whether Jason Preston, a second-year point guard also recalled from the G League, could make plays when the offense broke down.
The thornier question, of course, is when the Clippers will have the chance to work on issues that could determine their playoff fate. At the top of the list is improving the offense when using small lineups, George said late Wednesday, only for Lue to echo the sentiment a day later. The spacing can be a mess, their pace uneven.
“Just knowing how we want to play: our spacing, you know, sometimes it’s not as good with the small lineup,” Lue said. “And then our pick and rolls, like we talked about it every day.”
Yet if the Clippers need Diabate for spot postseason minutes, one teammate said before tipoff, perhaps a straight line could be drawn to a night like this, when his NBA education continued in the fourth quarter as Chris Paul, the surefire Hall of Fame point guard, locked onto Diabate for one of his beloved midrange jumpers, only to misfire over Diabate’s long-armed contest.
To Phoenix coach Monty Williams, waiting to draw insights on full-strength nights is a sucker’s game, an NBA fantasy that doesn’t reflect the reality of a season, where holes in the boat must be patched daily.
“I think every NBA season is different equations that we all use to get to where we need to go,” Williams said. “If you’re looking at one paradigm or maybe two, and you think ‘OK we got this and this and we’re going to get’ — you’re just going to be frustrated and disappointed. You have to be open-minded, I think, and just take what the season gives you.
“You get a call at 11 o’clock at night or, for me, I get a text at 6, 7 in the morning, and it could change my whole practice plan or game plan. That’s just the way it is. As far as knowing your team I think you’re just learning about different teams along the way. And then if you’re fortunate enough to make it to the playoffs you just try to put it all together as best you can. I’m sure there have been teams in the past that have had continuity all year long and they probably have been really good but I’ve never experienced that.”
After enduring a rash of injuries for the past two seasons, and for a franchise whose championship ambitions are tied so closely to the availability of Leonard and George, the Clippers know that better than almost any other team. It was why more than watching for any single schematic nuance or how a player would fare in a new role, Lue and the Clippers want to see a baseline of defensive fight and competence Thursday.
“That’s kind of what you want to establish, because that means you’re playing hard every night,” Lue said. “When you’re guarding, you’re playing defense, that means you’re playing hard every night.”
Competitiveness, forward Nicolas Batum said before tipoff, is a skill.
After only 37 first-half points, the Clippers scored 33 in the third quarter alone to trim their deficit to just 14 late in the quarter, the volume beginning to rise, and when Boston Jr. drove for a layup and was fouled to cut the deficit to 94-77 with nine minutes to play, Phoenix center Bismack Biyombo punched the basket’s padded stanchion in frustration.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.