LOS ANGELES — Two nights ago, coach Tyronn Lue said the Clippers were “close” to playing as they were predicted to do before the season began. He said they were “close” to stringing together six or seven victories in a row.
They weren’t far off, he said, but it would take some work, take some time.
Make that a little more work and a little more time.
Missing two more players, the Clippers dug themselves a hole before emerging with a 121-100 victory Sunday against a similarly depleted Houston Rockets team at Crypto.com Arena.
“I thought (in) the third quarter they made some shots early, but overall, in that last six minutes of the third, all the way into the fourth, I thought we did a better job of just bringing a physicality to the game and that’s how we have to start the game,” Lue said. “It was a good win for us, despite who’s playing on their team, our team. But we needed that win.”
The Clippers (23-22) stepped up their defensive pressure and held the Rockets (10-33) to 10 points in the fourth quarter to inch above the .500 mark.
As they wait for Paul George to return from a hamstring injury, the Clippers are destined to endure more tough games with the latest bad news. All-Star guard John Wall suffered an abdominal injury on a dunk in the fourth quarter of Friday’s loss to Denver and will miss the next two weeks.
On top of that, Marcus Morris Sr. missed Sunday’s game because of a knee contusion, but he said he would be back in uniform Tuesday against Philadelphia. The two joined Luke Kennard (calf) and George on the bench. Moussa Diabate also was out because of non-COVID illness.
That left another patchwork roster for Lue, who used his 16th different starting lineup this season, one that saw Amir Coffey making his eighth start of the season after playing one minute against Dallas and seeing no action the next two games. Terance Mann made his fourth consecutive start, playing a non-traditional point-guard role.
“It’s tough for those guys to play different positions in different roles,” Lue said. “But our principals can stay the same, no matter who’s on the floor.”
And that, Lue said, includes a defensive mindset, moving the basketball, getting to second and third actions and attacking the paint.
“That’s got to be our main focus no matter who’s playing,” Lue added. “It’s about the style of basketball we play when guys are out. It’s going to be tough to win games, but we still can have our core principles on both sides of the basketball, and that’s the most important.”
It took three quarters for the Clippers to remember that before they began playing the way Lue wanted. They trailed most of the game until a lineup of Moses Brown, Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Robert Covington and Mann got the team moving in the right direction.
With the score tied at 92, the Clippers outscored the Rockets 17-2 to take a 109-94 lead with 6: 13 left to play. And the Clippers kept going.
“I thought we did a better job with (Rockets guard) Eric Gordon, controlled his penetration,” Lue said. “We also rebounded the basketball, which allows to get out in transition a little bit.
“But I just thought we did a better job of just paying attention to detail. I thought we did a good job of bringing a physicality to the game in that fourth quarter, and then when we got rebounds and stops. We were able to get out and run.
“We did a good job in that fourth quarter, so hopefully it can carry you over to Tuesday (against the 76ers).”
Leonard had another big game with 30 points, six rebounds, four assists and two steals, while Mann scored a regular-season career-high 31 points on 12 of 16 shooting from the field. Mann also made 5 of 8 3-pointers and had six rebounds and four assists.
Powell added 18 points and three assists.
KJ Martin Jr. led the Rockets with 22 points and nine rebounds in 33 minutes and Eric Gordon added 24 points.
The Clippers struggled early against a team that also was missing significant pieces of its roster.
The Rockets were without leading scorer Jalen Green and Jae’Sean Tate, who were suspended one game by the league for leaving the bench during an altercation the previous night against Sacramento. Two others were fined. That left the Rockets even more short-handed with their best player, Kevin Porter, out.
And still, the Clippers had difficulty stopping whoever the Rockets put on the floor and couldn’t overtake Houston to trail 63-62 at the half.
And Lue tried everything he could to change course. He played all but Jason Preston in the first half, but turnovers and a lack of defense hurt them. The Rockets took advantage of wide-open lanes to lead by as many as eight in the first half.
A flurry of activity late in the second quarter and key baskets by Zubac. Powell and Mann kept the game from getting completely out of hand. Mann launched and made a 35-footer at the buzzer to pull the Clippers to within one before intermission.