Clippers' comeback cannot overcome Joel Embiid, 76ers

Clippers' comeback cannot overcome Joel Embiid, 76ers

Doc Rivers and Tyronn Lue, the longtime NBA coach and his former player-turned-protégé-turned-Clippers successor, still talk often and Rivers characterized those conversations as “fun” — during the summer.

It isn’t the frequency of their talks that changes during the season — it’s the tone.

“I don’t know if we talk, or we commiserate,” Rivers said Tuesday, when his Philadelphia 76ers arrived at Arena to face the Clippers. “I don’t even know which one we do at times, but it feels like we do the latter more than the talk.”

Lue, for the past three seasons, has been presented with the same challenge Rivers couldn’t ultimately solve during his final season with the Clippers, in 2020: How to build a cohesive championship contender without roster continuity, where a team’s limit can’t be found with so many players playing under minutes limits. The endless cycle has built frustration, not significant winning streaks.

“I’ve lived that life,” Rivers said. “Now they’ve been through playoff wars [under Lue]. They at least have that, but it’s still disrupting. It’s hard, you know, it’s just so tough to … you just need games in a row.”

Just as injuries and workload-related absences limited Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the franchise’s pillars, to overlap for only 37 regular-season games during their first season, it has remained the case during their fourth. Tuesday marked only the 16th time this season, in 46 chances, that Leonard and George have played together.

The Clippers are now 9-7 in those games, and 23-23 overall, after their comeback from down 14 points could not be sustained in a 120-110 loss to Philadelphia, a promising rally against one of the East’s emerging contenders imploding under the weight of 19 turnovers and 35% shooting in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve just been behind the 8-ball just in terms of injuries and lineups and guys in and out,” said George, who scored 13 points on 11 shots in his return from a hamstring injury that cost him five games.

Said Leonard, who scored 27 points, including another explosive dunk: “We’ve got a lot to improve still. Once we do that consistently, we’ll see where we are.”

One month ago, Lue said he wanted to see his team play together for a 15-game stretch to know its true potential. Before tipoff Tuesday night inside Arena, he said he would take a 10-game sample size. All the while, the trade deadline inches closer as the Clippers monitor the market for a long-term answer at backup center and help at point guard.

“I know we have a good team,” Lue said. “But as far as staying healthy, we need to establish some continuity.”

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid shoots during the first half against the Clippers.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid shoots during the first half against the Clippers on Tuesday at Arena.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

But there is no guarantee it will ever happen as the roster remains a turnstile. As soon as George returned Tuesday, backup point guard John Wall was sidelined for what the team estimated would be two weeks after straining an abdominal muscle in a loss Friday to Denver. Backup guard Luke Kennard, one of the NBA’s most valuable shooters, watched for a fifth consecutive game, his irritated calf in sweatpants again.

Lue said George showed the expected rust, including five turnovers. The trio, including George, Leonard and new starting guard Terance Mann, had played only 17 minutes together this season before Tuesday. And Tuesday’s starting lineup, which added forward Marcus Morris Sr. and center Ivica Zubac, had never played together.

After only two first-quarter turnovers, the Clippers committed eight in the second quarter that Philadelphia (28-16) turned into 13 points. They again thwarted their own rally plans after taking an 85-81 lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter, unable to muster a field goal during one six-minute stretch of the final 14 minutes. Leonard scored 14 in the third quarter, but none in the fourth.

In his last two games that preceded his absence, George took 25 shots but only four inside the paint and two at the rim. Against Philadelphia, his first shot was a jumper he swished one step in front of the free-throw line. For his second, he turned a post-up into a dunk. Of his 11 shots, six were in the paint, but with Joel Embiid controlling the paint, scoring 20 of his 41 points there, the 76ers easily resisted the Clippers’ charge.

“It’s a tough stretch for us, but we’ve been through worse and so our psyche’s good,” Lue said. “We just gotta fight our way out of this.”

They must summon that fight quickly, facing a remaining schedule ranked as the league’s second hardest. Starting with Wednesday’s game in Salt Lake City — a game George will miss while the team remains cautious with his return from injury — the Clippers will play just two games in Los Angeles until Feb. 8.

The time for complaining about their circumstances is over, Lue said before tipoff, replaced by winning games in spite of them. But as Tuesday illustrated, that will be easier said than done.