Tyronn Lue added something new to his pregame routine Saturday — a knock on wood.
For the record, the Clippers’ coach rapped his knuckle on a plastic folding table during his pre-tipoff media availability inside Oklahoma City’s Paycom Center. But only hours after starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols before jetting back to Los Angeles on a private plane, joining the more than 50 players in the past week who have been sidelined by the league’s coronavirus-related protocols — outbreaks that have led to decimated rosters and an all-time high awareness of the league’s hardship exception — the symbolism counted all the same.
Morris told his coach he was asymptomatic and for the moment he is the only Clipper in protocols, which Lue called a “positive out of a negative situation.” But as cases rise across the NBA, coaches are looking for luck wherever they can get it. And so Lue knocked.
“We have been fortunate where we haven’t had to miss any games, and you know, we’ve had one player at a time [in protocols], so they’re doing all the right things,” Lue said. “Marcus is the only guy that had it. So that’s good for us, bad for Marcus, but at least our whole team didn’t get it.”
Clippers’ Marcus Morris Sr. enters NBA’s COVID protocols
Clippers starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols before Saturday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
That was the upshot, at least, on a night when a three-pointer at the buzzer by Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander later knocked out the Clippers in a 104-103 loss.
One game after Gilgeous-Alexander’s go-ahead three-pointer with one second remaining was upstaged by what is believed to be the longest game-winning shot in NBA history — a 61-footer by New Orleans’ Devonte’ Graham — the former Clippers guard this time left no time for a rebuttal.
“He made a tough shot to win the game,” Lue said, “but we played well enough to win.”
They had their chances, shooting 41% from deep with only 13 turnovers. But they gave up 17 offensive rebounds and a Clippers offense with the second-best field goal percentage in clutch scenarios had many empty possessions.
Three possessions a row in the final 1 minute, 43 seconds ended with either a miss or turnover by point guard Reggie Jackson, but the Clippers led 101-97 with 33 seconds to play after a three-pointer by Nicolas Batum. With seven seconds to play, and the Clippers up two, Justise Winslow was fouled and stepped to the free-throw line, where he had taken only six shots, and made only three, before Saturday. Winslow missed both.
“The free throws, it is what it is,” said Luke Kennard, whose 27 points were a season high. “There were so many things that put us in that position there at the end. Everybody was positive with him. He’s all right.”
Given one, final shot, Gilgeous-Alexander used his dribble to create room from Batum and didn’t miss from 28 feet.
“He got me on the step back,” Batum said. “And made a big shot.”
It wasn’t their only loss late. After eight points, five rebounds, two assists and two blocks, backup center Isaiah Hartenstein left grimacing after rolling his ankle on Gilgeous-Alexander’s foot in the final two minutes. Lue didn’t have an update on the severity of the injury.
Hartenstein’s injury could mark one more absence for a Clippers (16-14) lineup resembling a revolving door, with one player returning just as another leaves — a cycle involving the starting and backup forwards of Morris and Batum multiple times.
“Guys in and out, I am not making excuses, but it is just hard as a team to get a groove, get something going, get the same looks every night,” guard Terance Mann said. “We fought hard today, we fought hard the last game also. I feel like we are still heading in the right direction, though.”
Honesty and understanding. How Clippers’ Tyronn Lue has built trust with his players
Tyronn Lue of the Clippers is one of the most respected coaches in the NBA because of his ability to have the “tough” discussions with players about playing time.
Just as Morris was playing his best basketball, scoring at least 20 points in five of his last seven games, Batum was on track to return after missing his last three games because of a sprained right ankle — and 12 of his last 13 overall, including a November bout with COVID-19. He played off the bench with the intention of using him for a restricted number of minutes, around 15. Batum played 25, scoring 12 points, with half of those coming on fourth-quarter threes to maintain or take the lead.
A sprained right elbow kept Paul George out a fifth consecutive game, but he has felt better to the point Lue said he is more concerned with his conditioning than pain. That the Clippers’ offense had not bottomed out with their leading scorer on the sideline — their average of 110 points per 100 possessions during Paul’s four-game absence entering Saturday was actually five more than their average before he was sidelined — was an indication of their early season struggles on that end and a credit to the recent boosts provided by Morris, Kennard and guard Eric Bledsoe.
After making seven of his 13 three-pointers against the Thunder, Kennard has now made 37 of 67 three-pointers in his last nine games. And after a two-point first half, Bledsoe dropped seven in the third quarter but ultimately finished with those nine on three-for-13 shooting.
Trouble loomed long before Gilgeous-Alexander launched his game-ending rainbow from deep.
In a nine-minute stretch spanning halftime, Oklahoma City (9-19) scored 11 times within six feet of the rim, including three layups and four dunks to take a seven-point lead midway through the third. The young Thunder ran off of Clippers turnovers; they ran off Clippers misses; they even pushed the ball upcourt off of made Clippers free throws behind the guile of rookie point guard Josh Giddey’s inbound passes to win the transition battle by eight points. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 18 points and Lu Dort had 29.
“Just frustrating,” Kennard said. “We shouldn’t have lost that game, plain and simple. We didn’t play as hard as them.”
Greif covered the game remotely from Los Angeles.
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Andrew Greif is the Clippers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times. He joined The Times after covering college football and sports enterprise at the Oregonian. A University of Oregon graduate, he grew up on the Oregon coast.
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