For much of December, the Clippers’ ability to withstand opponents’ charges had come into question. They’d blown leads, lost games and grown frustrated by a troubling trend.
It was why, after the Lakers rattled off a 17-2 run in the final 3 minutes 13 seconds before halftime Wednesday to lead the Clippers by 12, coach Doc Rivers entered his Staples Center locker room asking for answers.
“Doc asked everybody on the team, ‘What do you see?’” center Montrezl Harrell said. “Guys gave their answers and the last answer that was given by one of our teammates was, ‘They’re just playing harder.’”
Responded Rivers: “That’s the easiest adjustment we can make all year if that’s true.”
The halftime explanation led to third-quarter execution and postgame exhalation.
The Clippers outscored the Lakers by 12 in the quarter, making five of their eight three-pointers while the Lakers shot one for 10 while also not settling for long-range shots. By driving downhill toward the basket, they shot 13 free throws to the Lakers’ five. The inside-outside attack was critical during the final 3:22 of the quarter, when the Clippers outscored the Lakers 13-6 while Lakers star LeBron James rested on the bench.
“We just held our poise,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “We understand we’re playing a phenomenal team in the Lakers, No. 1, No. 2 team in the NBA. We know we’re playing a good team. They’re not just going to roll over and let us win, especially at home. We kept our composure, we came out in the second half with a lot of energy.”
Kawhi Leonard was clutch in the fourth quarter, scoring 11 of his 35 points, and Beverley’s five fourth-quarter rebounds, plus his strip of the ball from James in the final seconds, sealed the comeback. But none of the fourth-quarter heroics would have been possible had the Clippers not begun the second half in the opposite fashion that they ended the first.
“That was the wake-up call for us,” center Ivica Zubac said.
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The recovery led the teams to enter the fourth quarter on equal footing and the Clippers eventually withstood continued Lakers charges before winning 111-106 to improve to 2-0 against their Staples Center co-tenant this season.
“We were just saying we’ve got to stop worrying about the game,” Leonard said. “We’re not gonna blow teams out, it’s not gonna be easy. Every night is gonna be a battle and stop worrying about the score. Just play every possession. Play hard. If we’re losing, don’t look up, just keep doing what we have to do to win. I think we did that in the second half.”
When, in recent weeks, the Clippers had been unable to end opponents’ runs, circumstances had often been blamed — the effects of a short-handed roster, or playing on a second consecutive night. But that made Wednesday’s end to the first half all the more puzzling. The Clippers hadn’t played since Sunday and every player was available.
“We wasn’t playing hard, we was basically coasting through the game the first part,” Harrell said. “They was taking it to us and to end the first half we were doing more complaining than playing.”
Rivers started forward Patrick Patterson in the first quarter, believing his three-point threat would draw Lakers center Anthony Davis away from the basket and space the floor, but “I didn’t think that was very effective honestly,” Rivers said.
To begin the third quarter he kept the starting lineup the same with the exception of swapping Maurice Harkless, typically the starting forward, for Patterson. The move was “big,” Rivers said, whose team outscored the Lakers by six points with Harkless on the floor in the quarter.
“We didn’t flinch,” Rivers said. “We just kind of hung in there and it almost felt like we were biding our time and trying to make a run. That’s something you have to have when things aren’t going great for you — you just have to hang in there and I thought we did that tonight.”