Clippers’ blowout loss to Pelicans an ominous sign ahead of critical week

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — To avoid the play-in tournament, or hold onto home-court advantage for a first-round series, the Los Angeles Clippers need a big finish to the regular season.

That will be more difficult to pull off with starts like Saturday’s.

Facing the New Orleans Pelicans, the Clippers lost the first five minutes of the first quarter by nine points.

Two minutes into the second quarter, their 11-point deficit had grown to 19.

Barely more than four minutes into the third quarter, their 12-point deficit was up to 18.

From there, the Clippers weren’t up to the task of mounting a comeback in a 131-110 loss at Arena.

Again and again, the Pelicans’ best shooters found and made open shots.

Again and again, the Clippers could never apply enough pressure to change that — an ominous sign for a critical week ahead as they face Western Conference opponents in three of their next four games and jockey for position in tightly packed standings.

Hours before tipoff, there was a modest sign of optimism when guard Norman Powell, sidelined by an injury to his left, non-shooting, shoulder since March 2, posted to Instagram a collection of photos of him taking part in practice against various levels of contact.

But Powell isn’t expected to be back by the next game, Monday against the Chicago Bulls, still needing to hit a few more benchmarks in his recovery before he’s cleared for game action. Paul George, of course, also won’t be on the court anytime soon because of a sprained right knee.

But if there were any opponent most likely to have zero sympathy about the Clippers’ injury woes, it is New Orleans.

A hamstring injury has sidelined star forward Zion Williamson since Jan. 2. Guard Jose Alvarado hasn’t played since Feb. 27 because of a tibia injury. And though Saturday was the 74th game for New Orleans, it was only Brandon Ingram’s 37th.

Most concerning for the Clippers, then, was that New Orleans did not need its full complement of players to take control. They needed only two.

After three baskets by Ingram within New Orleans’ first possessions, the Clippers called a timeout while trailing by eight only 128 seconds into the game. On one possession, Pelicans teammates Ingram and Dyson Daniels ran into each other while running to the three-point arc in a clear miscommunication — and yet Ingram still got open for a three-pointer he swished.

Then the Clippers lost track of Trey Murphy for four first-quarter three-pointers — defensive miscommunications made all the more notable because of the dearth of other shooting options against which the Clippers needed to defend.

By the first quarter’s end, the Pelicans made nine of their 11 three-pointers to lead by 11, and the combination of Ingram and Murphy’s 26 points equaled the Clippers’ total. It was the second consecutive game since the revamped starting lineup missing George created a first-quarter deficit instead of an advantage.

But where reserves such as guards Bones Hyland and Terance Mann infused energy and pace that jump-started Thursday’s first-quarter comeback, their impact didn’t translate Saturday. For good measure, Murphy drilled his fifth three-pointer and slammed an alley-oop lob early in the second quarter to help build New Orleans’ lead to as many as 19.

When the Clippers pulled to within 10 midway through the second and coach Tyronn Lue implemented a small lineup without a center, a group of fans behind the basket nearest the team bench began a loud “We want Ro-Co” chant, pleading for Lue to insert little-used forward Robert Covington. Covington did not come in; starting center Ivica Zubac did before halftime, after the small-ball lineup was outscored by two in their four minutes together.

The lineup tinkering didn’t slow New Orleans’ shooting. Murphy finished the first half with six three-pointers. Then Murphy pushed New Orleans’ halftime lead of 12 to 15 by opening the second half with another three-pointer. Murphy and Ingram each finished with 32 points.

The Clippers couldn’t match the shooting. One game after making 13 of his 15 shots in a victory, Kawhi Leonard missed all six of his three-point attempts and left the game early after sustaining a facial contusion. He finished with 12 points.

Hyland scored 18 points and seven assists and Eric Gordon had 15 points.