Following the Clippers’ fifth consecutive defeat, there was no team meeting in the visitors’ locker room at Target Center in Minneapolis last week. There were no great declarations made by the players.
But one voice broke through the silence of a losing run.
Four years after playing alongside Kawhi Leonard on a championship team with Toronto, backup guard Norman Powell sensed “championship DNA” in the Clippers as well. Everyone had, judging by the team’s remarks during training camp as speculation of a championship circled. Powell, irritated by the loss, spoke out when it had failed to transfer into consistency.
He wanted to remind the squad of what was still possible, he stated days later.
“I spoke with the team. ‘This squad is deeper than the Raptors team I was on,’ I informed them. “It’s all about identity, who we are, and how we’re going to play,” Powell said. “I believe that is something that every team goes through. When you look back at championship and elite teams, you’ll notice that there’s usually a time in the season when you get here. And for whatever reason, we’ve been here a number of times, and it’s just guts up and taking it and coming out of it.”
Powell said that Toronto’s 2019 championship squad established its identity early on, based on years of the same core playing together. The additions of Leonard, Danny Green, and Marc Gasol, as well as the appointment of an assistant coach, Nick Nurse, to head coach, strengthened but did not significantly change that foundation. And, by winning 12 of their first 13 games, the Raptors avoided the inconsistency that plagued the Clippers.
But every club has its time to define what it will be, and the Raptors’ came after a 13-point defeat to Milwaukee on national television in January.
“It’s a turning moment for the squad and a time to lock in,” Powell added.
Being beaten by 31 points in Denver in a game so uncompetitive that coach Tyronn Lue benched his players at halfway, and then losing by 13 against the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves the following night — games in which the Clippers never led — seemed like the Clippers’ fault. However, there has previously been rhetoric of urgency with no consistency to back it up.
On Tuesday night, two days after losing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to the Atlanta Hawks but believing they saw a step forward in their process with a new starting lineup and new rotations leading to a spike in energy and defensive intensity, the Clippers snapped their six-game losing streak with a 113-101 win over the Dallas Mavericks at Crypto.com Arena.
“There’s a little more urgency,” said forward Robert Covington. “One of the things we spoke about tonight was urgency. Essentially, the team who throws the first punch is the side that will win. And that’s what we did up there.”
Playing without Paul George (hamstring) and Luke Kennard (calf) for the second consecutive game, but with the same reshuffled starting lineup and revamped bench lineup, the Clippers led by 23 points while looking like the type of team Powell described earlier — regardless of who is on the court, he said.
“The main thing we have to find out is who we are every single night that we’re on the court, and it doesn’t matter who’s suiting up that night,” Powell said.
“It’s simply that we’re going to be a strong, hard-nosed defence. We’re going to be a fast-paced offence that assaults you, puts pressure on the basket, and creates open shots. And that is not the case – PG does not have to play for it, and Kawhi does not have to play for it. That’s simply a basketball identity and approach we have to start focusing on right now.”
Leonard finished with 33 points and nine rebounds, and the Clippers (22-21) only had 10 turnovers.
With centres Ivica Zubac and Moses Brown both carrying three first-half fouls, the Clippers focused on Mavericks star Luka Doncic — who shot three for nine in the first half — by using the sort of all-wing lineup Lue couldn’t wait to try out in the preseason but hadn’t completely embraced.
“I believe we have the talent to accomplish it,” Lue said of the hard-nosed defence and offensive offence Powell depicted. “I simply believe it’s finding the correct combinations and getting everyone healthy so we can see who plays well together and how we can establish that connection… on both sides of the ball.”
Dallas was never in the lead this time. Even though Doncic (43 points) trimmed the Clippers’ advantage to eight points in the closing minutes, Terance Mann, who replaced Reggie Jackson as starting point guard again and was a team-best plus-24 while scoring 12 points, kept the Clippers in it. Jackson was completely out of the starting lineup versus Dallas.
Lue went to Covington, a little-used forward, early to replace Zubac, and an all-wing team answered by outscoring the Mavericks by seven points in the opening six minutes. Covington’s season-high 31 minutes were won by the Clippers by a score of 13 points.
“I felt it was pretty nice with our big wing lineup,” Lue remarked.