LOS ANGELES — It’s been Coach Tyronn Lue’s mantra for weeks now. Play defense. Develop a defensive mindset. Create good habits starting with defense. He said the Clippers can score, but their downfall has been a breakdown in their defense.
It was something he again referred to before the team faced the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday. Lue said they had to avoid falling behind by double digits.
“Don’t get down 15, 16 and then fight back,” Lue said, “because then you’ve exhausted so much energy that now you can’t finish the game. We just have to have that (defensive) mindset and try to do it for 48 minutes.”
His warning lasted 16 minutes before the Clippers were staring at a 10-point deficit.
“To me, you have to go get it. You have to play harder to go get after it. You can’t wait for luck,” Lue said. “For me, just playing 48 minutes hard and giving it all you got on both sides of the floor and that’s what we have to do.”
The Clippers, however, didn’t get the victory, losing to the Atlanta Hawks 112-108 Sunday in the first of a five-game homestand. The loss extended their losing streak to six games.
“You know it’s a tough stretch, that happens,” Nicolas Batum said. “We got to stick together. I mean, it’s not pretty, it’s not easy right now, but we can. We can’t separate ourselves, so we’ve got to stick together, stick together as tight as a team.
“We’re going to get back to it. It’s not, it’s not easy right now. It’s not pretty, that’s for sure. But we can’t just relax. We showed some good things. We just had to finish it. That’s it.”
Lue was hoping that with a lineup change, some defensive work and perhaps a bit of luck, the Clippers (21-21) could have snapped their losing streak.
“I thought we got some decent shots, but then we had some turnovers, too,” Lue said. “We had some turnovers that led to easy baskets for those guys, and then we had a couple of them blocked at the rim that basically was like a turnover. And they got out in transition, got some easy baskets.
“We scrapped, we competed,” Lue said. “I liked our fight tonight, I thought we did play hard for the whole 48 minutes defensively. They got some good players over there, but some things we just need to keep working on, but I did like what I saw tonight.”
Throughout the skid, Lue said that the Clippers tended to play well in spurts and Sunday’s game was not much different. They squandered a 17-point lead, trailed by as many as 11 in the third and led by 11 in the fourth before it ended in a four-point loss.
With the Clippers up, 106-102, Dejounte Murray scored a layup followed by a pair of free throws and a jump shot by Trae Young to give the Hawks a 108-106 lead. Leonard responded with a driving layup that tied the game.
Young drove the lane to put the Hawks (19-21) up by two. The Clippers missed two long-range shots before Young made two more free throws to seal the game. He finished with a game-high 30 points.
Leonard led the Clippers with 29 points, Ivica Zubac had 17 points and 18 rebounds, while three others scored in double figures. But it wasn’t enough.
“I think we did a good job,” Leonard said. “Our pace was a little quicker off their misses and even when they made the basket just getting the ball up. It translated to us having more pace on the defensive end. I think we did a good job.”
With 41 games left, Lue decided to change the starting lineup and played Terance Mann at guard over Reggie Jackson, a move that gave the team an initial burst of energy. The Clippers, behind Mann’s quickness, led by as many as eight in the opening quarter, giving the team reason to hope for a different outcome.
Mann lined up alongside Leonard, Batum, Zubac and Marcus Morris Sr. Paul George did not play because of a lingering hamstring injury and Luke Kennard also was out. Lue said he liked what he saw from his starting lineup, especially defensively.
“I thought just defensively we were really good,” Lue said. “We’re just still learning how to play with TMann at the point guard position, but, when PG gets back, he can help with that as well.”
With the Clippers’ second unit on the floor in the first half, though, the Hawks, led by Young and Murray, slowly chipped away at the Clippers’ lead to take a 66-52 lead at the half. Atlanta took advantage of the Clippers’ lack of 3-point shooting without George or Kennard and outscored the Clippers, 41-26, in the second quarter that started with a 13-0 run.
The Hawks scored four points in the last 8.4 seconds off John Collins’ alley-oop dunk and an ensuing inbounds steal by De’Andre Hunter for the final points of the half.
It was the kind of scenario Lue had hoped to avoid.
The starting lineup returned to start the third and seemed to re-energize the team, cutting the Hawks’ lead to one, 79-78, on a driving layup by Leonard. Powell gave the Clippers the lead, 80-79, on a jump shot and Morris Sr. pushed them further ahead, 85-81 on a 25-footer.
Morris had 11 of his 20 points in the third quarter, which included 3 of 4 3-pointers, and the Clippers held a two-point lead heading into the final quarter.
The starters were on floor at the beginning of the fourth and built a 102-91 lead before Lue inserted Moses Brown, John Wall and Norman Powell with Leonard and Mann midway through the quarter. They kept the game close until the end.