Here come the Los Angeles Clippers, not even a year removed from the catastrophe inside the bubble in Disney World, wading in the same muck, feeling around for a new way out of the room. Fans of the Phoenix Suns, Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets — who alongside the Clippers are clamoring to see what the view is really like from the top — will recognize this juncture. It’s familiar emotional territory for anyone who has ever hoped for anything: the exciting, terrifying, almost noxious feeling of promise.
The Clippers, despite missing Paul George, Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley, dispatched the Milwaukee Bucks, 129-105 on Monday, the team's sixth straight victory.
“Having a defensive mindset every time we step on the floor, that’s gonna have carryover,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after the game. “Offensively, being able to play out the plays we’ve been working on the last few months.”
“You can finally start to see it coming together,” Lue continued, before adding in the same sentence, “we had a lot of lineups on the floor that you’ll probably never see again.” So maybe it means nothing to win in a situation that will likely never replicate itself. But cohesion despite upheaval is also the hallmark of a team finding an identity.
The Clippers started Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., and Ivica Zubac. The lineup should have revealed nothing interesting, but over the last few weeks, the Clippers’ role players have used new opportunities to find new iterations in their game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo opened the game by hitting two wide-open jumpers. But the Clippers kept letting him shoot, and Zubac adjusted, sinking back even deeper into the paint so he’d have time to anticipate the drive and work out an angle that kept Giannis from gliding unscathed to the rim.
Nicolas Batum changed his pregame routine and ended up crashing the boards and chased Donte DiVincenzo down in transition while Terance Mann seized empty space.
Then there’s Kennard, who is giving the Clippers spacing and passing they desperately need. Playmaking has been a constant question for this team. You wonder, watching Mann kick out after drives and Kennard finding cutters on secondary dribble handoffs, while new addition Rajon Rondo awaits his debut, if there might be enough grease on these wheels for a ride to the promised land.
A reporter even asked Batum if he felt something building: “Yes, for sure. We feel something. Something is different from this team in the last couple of games, and I like it.”
He also wondered if trading Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams for Rondo changed the mindsets of Kennard and Mann.
“I love Lou Williams, but I think by doing that the franchise showed they really trust those young guys for the future, not only the future but right now,” Batum said.
Were they playing with a sense of ownership or desperation? Everyone knows that George, Rondo, Beverley and Ibaka are waiting in the wings. Lue has been jotting rotations down on paper. He calls the potential logjam a good problem, but it still needs to be solved.
The Clippers are in a fragile, exciting moment. The climb is hard, and you can’t take anything, especially the inevitability of your own progress, for granted. They have discovered a spark, but plenty of things spark — ideas, teams, relationships — without erupting into something sustainable.
Four of the Clippers’ next five games are against Western Conference playoff foes: the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers and Phoenix Suns. The next few weeks promise to be revealing.
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