It took just over four minutes in Monday night’s game between the Blazers and the Clippers for all five of Portland’s starters to score with ease. At one point in the first quarter, the Blazers were shooting 81 percent from the field and were up by 15. The Clippers came back to lead, and took the game down to the final seconds before losing 131-127. The game was emblematic of what these Clippers do: they overachieve. They’re deep, they go all out, and they work hard to keep games close even when the talent of the other team surpasses theirs. It was also a game that was emblematic of what the Clippers really are. In the past few contests, Los Angeles has started to show some cracks in its makeup. After the loss to Portland at home, the Clippers have now dropped four games in a row, and have lost seven of their past 10. One of the feel-good teams of the season is coming back down to earth.
For the first part of the season, we saw how the Clippers could thrive off of continuity and depth and good chemistry. There were no obvious weaknesses on their roster, and they were even getting valuable play from rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. It was a dream start. And though it was obvious that this form wouldn’t last, it persisted longer than expected. As recently as two and a half weeks ago, the Clippers topped the West. Now, they’ve dropped to the 6-seed at 17-13. So, what’s gone wrong?
It’s easy to say that L.A.’s defense has cost it. On Monday, the Clippers allowed 131 points to the Blazers, three of their past four opponents have scored over 120 points, and in the past five games, they’ve had the worst defense in the league in terms of defensive rating. Since the calendar turned to December, the Clippers have gone from a top-10 team at defending shots within 4 feet of the basket to a bottom-10 unit, according to Cleaning the Glass. Case in point: The Blazers bludgeoned them for 58 points in the paint in Monday’s win. During that stretch, L.A. has also been the worst team in the league at defending the midrange, while also dropping to below league average at defending 3s.
Scoring 131 points isn’t exactly novel for a team as offensively gifted as the Blazers—they have a top-10 offense—but the Clippers also helped them plenty by turning the ball over 10 times. That’s tame compared to the way the Clippers turned the ball over in their loss to the Thunder on Saturday. In Oklahoma City, the Clippers coughed it up a whopping 26 times, which led to 22 points for the Thunder. There lies their other issue.
In their past 10 games, the Clippers have a bottom-10 turnover rate and are allowing 19.8 points off turnovers per game—the third-worst mark in the league. Turnovers spark fast-break opportunities, so it’s no surprise that the Clippers are also allowing over 18.4 fast-break points per game during that 10-game span, good for 29th in the NBA. A team without a clear no. 1 player that can take over a game can’t overcome that type of deficiency. Lou Williams has been out for the past four losses with a hamstring injury, and though his return will help, it won’t make the Clippers elite.
This is the Clippers’ predicament. Their top-end talent is solid—Tobias Harris had 39 points Monday, Danilo Gallinari scored 22, and SGA added a career-high 24 points—but if their system as a whole isn’t performing above average (see: allowing Damian Lillard to go off for 22 in a quarter), they start to tilt. That Harris’s 39 wasn’t enough to push them to a win is a direct indictment of their defensive effort. Hold Portland to its season average of 111 points per game, and it’s an easy win. Let them go off for 130-plus, and it’s a tough loss. The Clippers can’t hang their hopes on the fact they have the drive to make in-game comebacks; their luck on that front has already started to run out.
This team has already shown the rest of the league it can compete and at least deserves to not be overlooked in spite of its lack of a star. The Clippers have the pieces and the system to make a run at a playoff spot, but only if all the pieces and the system work to perfection. It’s a high bar, but until they can woo either Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant next summer, it’s the bar they have to clear. What they might be starting to realize, though, is that that bar may also just be their ceiling.