New starting lineup, same result: Clippers' losing streak stretches to six games

New starting lineup, same result: Clippers' losing streak stretches to six games

The coach’s words before tipoff sounded like a rallying cry.

His lineup choices led to a changing of the guard.

What followed Sunday was a second-half rally that had all the hallmarks of a season-changing moment — until all the early energy devolved into blown opportunities and a sixth consecutive loss.

Stuck in neutral and still battling injuries at the schedule’s midway point, with one All-Star wing asking for smarter, faster play and their coach pleading for more consistent defensive performances, the Clippers endured 48 minutes that felt like a microcosm of their previous 41 games, an authoritative start led by a new starting lineup devolving into a blown lead before a resuscitation this franchise desperately needed — only for it all to fall apart in a 112-108 loss to the Hawks.

Trailing middling Atlanta, a team beset by questions about its leadership and future, by 14 at halftime, the Clippers responded like a team that had heard coach Tyronn Lue remark, pointedly, before tipoff that the losing streak was “tough on our team, but you got to dig yourself out of the hole and we’ve been through worse,” Lue said, before adding his coda.

“And so I’m prepared for the fight,” Lue said, “so those guys got to get in the fight with me.”

The Clippers erased their halftime deficit by outscoring Atlanta by 16 in the third quarter, a rally built on the reappearance of the defense that held the Hawks without a field goal and only five-of-13 shooting inside the paint. They then led by as many as 11 with 6 minutes 31 seconds remaining in the fourth, a Kawhi Leonard three-pointer raising the volume inside Arena.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks during the first half against the Atlanta Hawks.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Within three minutes, the Hawks had forged a tie as five Clippers possessions went by without mustering a point, signs of the usual inconsistency reemerging, and with 33 seconds left a Trae Young floater pushed Atlanta ahead by two to end a 19-6 Atlanta run.

When Leonard missed a contested three-pointer, an offensive rebound afforded Marcus Morris Sr. a wide-open chance to take the lead, but his three-pointer bounced off the rim and Atlanta ended the game with free throws.

The Clippers are 21-21.

The furious finish capped a notable start: The benching of point guard Reggie Jackson, who had started every game since the 2021 postseason, for Terance Mann, the wing whose role just one week ago was undefined.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, center, shoots as Atlanta Hawks forwards De'Andre Hunter, left, and John Collins defend.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, center, shoots as Atlanta Hawks forwards De’Andre Hunter, left, and John Collins defend during the second half.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

When Mann took the game’s first shot and swished his three-pointer, the point guard he replaced in the opening lineup, Jackson, was the first to stand and celebrate.

They were the first points of a 7-0 opening run — and the first signs that the energy was different around a team that hadn’t led in nine quarters.

Three days after Leonard was critical of the team not playing with enough speed, urgency or ball movement, Mann crashed through the lane before dumping off an assist to center Ivica Zubac. Mann was not a one-for-one replacement for Jackson’s ballhandling: More often the pace was controlled by Leonard, who turned the corner on high pick and rolls with his eyes on the rim and applied pressure on Atlanta’s defense to establish an early eight-point lead, doing the things he had asked for days earlier.

This was different — but real change for the Clippers entering the season’s second half hinges on the energy lasting throughout multiple lineups, not only the first.

Though Lue made a philosophical change with his starting lineups, the same was not the case with the construction of his bench units. Though Lue has asked repeatedly for his team to play with a more focused “defensive mindset,” he employed in the first half a three-guard lineup that has struggled throughout the season to score and defend. Jackson, John Wall and Norman Powell — Luke Kennard was unavailable because of a sore ankle — were part of a shift that saw the Clippers allow 13 unanswered points in fewer than three minutes to push Atlanta ahead 40-30.

Yet the lapses went beyond the bench. The first half ended with two Hawks dunks in three seconds after Leonard lost track of John Collins in a defensive switch, and Collins snuck behind Leonard for an alley-oop. Then Wall’s inbounds pass was intercepted for a dunk and 14-point Hawks lead.

Mann’s insertion into the starting lineup begged the question of how much the change was designed to last, and how much of it stemmed from Lue, already knowing his lineups would be altered because of Kennard and George’s absence, throwing a new idea in hopes of lighting a short-term fire. Either way, hard rotation decisions are likely coming for Lue as he sorts out the roles and responsibilities for his glut of guards. If Mann continues his transformation from the rotation’s odd man out to a fixture, the trickle-down effect would have consequences for Jackson, Wall and Kennard.

For one night, at least, Lue made his choice known, keeping Jackson on the bench for the entire second half, held to eight minutes, while Powell and Wall, who played more than 22 minutes apiece, were featured heavily in the third-quarter comeback. Lue has talked about breaking up ineffective three-guard lineups within the past week, but this was the first time he had so drastically turned away from one.