Five takeaways from a 106-100 loss to Utah in which the Clippers shot 10 more free throws and committed four fewer turnovers yet left the first game of their road trip with a defeat:
1. A key area where the Clippers (4-2) faltered Friday in Salt Lake City was also one where they have otherwise excelled. Entering Friday, they’d shot 55% inside the paint, the NBA’s second-best mark. But that was before they made 39% of their shots in the paint against Utah, where long-armed center Rudy Gobert roamed and continually deterred Clippers shots.
Even if Gobert officially recorded only one blocked shot, he is a “big presence in the paint,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. Yet the Clippers’ lack of efficiency converting close to the hoop was about more than Gobert.
“I thought we missed some chippies around the basket,” Lue said.
One game after scoring 52 points in the paint to rout Portland, the Clippers scored 30 in the paint on 15-of-38 shooting against the Jazz. That didn’t stop them from going inside. Layups by forward Paul George and guard Terance Mann and a dunk by center Ivica Zubac on three consecutive possessions trimmed Utah’s lead to 15 early in the fourth quarter.
“I think that’s one of our keys to success so far in this season is attacking the paint,” said Zubac, who accounted for a third of his team’s made baskets inside the lane. “We’ve got to keep doing it, and if it’s not working, we got to stick to it.”
Lue was happy with the quality of his team’s attempts. On a night when the Clippers shot 38% overall, the looks just didn’t fall.
“Kawhi [Leonard] got a lot of great midrange shots that he usually makes when he gets into the paint area, but then we kick it out to three when they doubled Kawhi and PG had three or four wide open threes in the first half that [Utah] was leaving, I don’t know why, but wasn’t able to knock down.
“We got the shots we wanted to get, especially with Gobert clogging the paint up.”
2. Lue felt he relied too much on Patrick Beverley, Leonard and George in the first half, when all three starters played between 17 and 21 minutes, but sounded as though he felt he had no other choice but to “overplay” his starters after reserves combined to score six points in the first 24 minutes.
In the first half, Utah outscored the Clippers by 20 in Lou Williams’ six minutes off the bench, 21 in Luke Kennard’s eight and 12 in each of Zubac’s and Reggie Jackson’s sub-five-minute stints.
“The game was getting out of hand, so we threw our starters in to just make a game of it before halftime, and we were able to do that,” Lue said. An 18-point Jazz lead was cut to one with two minutes left before halftime. The decision came at a cost. Lue said Beverley asked to be taken out with 10:15 to play in the third quarter because he was tired, and he didn’t return until eight minutes remained in the fourth quarter. Beverley played only 11 minutes in the second half.
Zubac said a condensed 72-game schedule was “not that much harder” on players’ conditioning.
“We just got to play it by ear and by feel,” Lue said. “Pat Beverley was playing great, and he got tired early in the third quarter, so you know, he asked to come out.”
3. As Lue mentioned, the Clippers would have loved more time from Beverley. They outscored Utah by 21 points when he was on the court. No other Clipper produced a plus-minus rating better than eight.
The guard had three fouls, but they led to only one Utah point.
Beverley was “just playing hard, know what I mean?” Leonard said. “Being locked in with his matchup, with the team concept, just playing to win, pretty much.”
4. Though a shortened season leaves less room for error in the standings, Lue has spent the early season more “worried about how we look as a group offensively and defensively, not so much win and losses,” Mann said earlier this week. Lue’s big-picture approach was evident in his postgame mood Friday, when his answers referenced his happiness more than his disappointment in a winnable opportunity.
“I was proud of our fight,” Lue said. “Couldn’t make shots, shots wasn’t falling for us tonight, but we just continued to keep defending and keep grinding, so I am proud of our team for that.”
The Clippers crumbled during the postseason when Denver punched back from a 3-1 series deficit to win in the second round. For a franchise that had built its roster — and marketing — around grit, no result could have been more off-brand. It is why, this season, Lue has been at his happiest describing the fight the Clippers have shown while holding off rallies by the Lakers and Nuggets while trying to spark their own comeback Friday.
“We just put ourselves in a hole, but I thought we did more than enough to give ourselves a chance,” George said. “And I think that really stood out more than anything.”
5. In 2003, after Richard Hamilton had broken his nose for the third time in his NBA career, he finally gave in and wore a protective face mask. The Detroit guard was reluctant, calling it uncomfortable to play in. Yet over time, he felt it allowed him to play more aggressively. Soon the accessory, as Hamilton told Newsweek last year, “turned into my thing.” He would wear the clear plastic mask until his retirement nine years later.
Don’t expect such a long-term connection to develop between Leonard and his own mask.
Two games into donning it to protect stitches near his jaw line and lips after taking an accidental elbow from a teammate, the Clippers star wants it off as soon as possible.
“It’s still uncomfortable,” Leonard said Friday. “I don’t know how you get used to wearing something on your head, you know what I mean? It is not something I want to do, but I am trying to protect myself right now. It will be off soon.”
Next up: The 5-1 Suns, in Phoenix, on Sunday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.