LOS ANGELES — The LA Clippers entered Sunday’s matinee home game against the 1-8 Memphis Grizzlies as the only team in the Western Conference with a winless record in November, having lost all four games since officially acquiring James Harden and P.J. Tucker from the Philadelphia 76ers. That losing streak reached five games after the Clippers lost to the previously league-worst Grizzlies 105-101, and Clippers coach Tyronn Lue expressed some frustration with how his star-laden team is playing.
“I saw some intriguing things, but … we got to be better,” lamented Lue, who is overseeing the team’s earlier five-game losing streak in a season since a nine-game losing streak in November 2017 under Doc Rivers.
“It wasn’t really a good flow, offensively, as far as a good flow on the offensive end,” Lue said. “And defensively, they ran their stuff hard. (Grizzlies head coach) Taylor (Jenkins) has his team prepared and they play hard, they cut hard, they do everything hard. And so if you’re not matching their intensity on the offensive end, they can pick you apart.”
While Jenkins entered Sunday’s game short $25,000 after profanely criticizing the officials following Memphis’ In-Season Tournament loss Friday against the visiting Utah Jazz, Lue had a different target of profane criticism: his team’s offensive process. After spending training camp focused on a style of play that featured Russell Westbrook’s ability to push the pace and find cutters in the half-court offense, the Clippers have ground to a halt with a surplus of 30-something ball handlers that includes Kawhi Leonard and Paul George trying to find their way in the wake of Harden’s acquisition.
“I think playing too slow, just playing too slow,” Lue said after Sunday’s game that dropped LA’s record to 3-6. “We get rebounds, you get stops, you got to push it. On makes, we got to push it, get up quick and attack early. You know, we can’t just f—— … Sorry. No, I mean, we just can’t just walk around offensively. Like you got to get to the next actions.”
“If you don’t do that, you don’t do it hard, you get beat every night and we’re seeing those results,” Lue continued. “So until we want to play hard on both ends of the floor, if we want to do things hard: cuts, screens, running the screen, sprinting the floor, then it is going to be tough nights, every single night. And so, you know, it’s up to our guys to change their mentality in that regard. Because we’re teaching it, we’re showing it, we’re telling it. So now we got to perform.”
This is about as direct as Tyronn Lue has been after a game as far as trying to hold back frustration while also *publicly* challenging his team since maybe the first week of March after the Golden State game.
And I think this was stronger than him mentioning mental toughness. https://t.co/ulTPmv4LMR pic.twitter.com/LdOYPZpDnU
— Law Murray 🧾 (@LawMurrayTheNU) November 13, 2023
Lue rarely allows his emotions to get the best of him, and he rarely chastises his team in public. Even Sunday, Lue tried to stop himself from cursing, apologized for letting himself go for even a moment, and refrained from being overly critical of his players without balancing it out with the fleeting signs of progress that he is seeing. But Lue is also trying to get Harden to be himself more, suggesting that he needs Harden to be more aggressive and to stop overthinking. The Clippers were outscored by a team-worst 28 points in Harden’s minutes Sunday, continuing a disturbing trend that has seen them outscored by a team-worst 67 points this month in Harden’s minutes.
“Just play, like just do your thing,” Lue said after Sunday’s game while describing his dialogue with Harden. “Like, if you do it too much, we’ll let you know. And he’s a special player. And so we understand that. And when you come into a new situation that you have really good players, you know, it’s always tough to come in and just try to take over.
“And so with PG, Kawhi and Russ, we’ve had these conversations. So we just got to make sure we get James as comfortable as possible, because he’s going to be huge for our team and what we’re trying to do.”
Harden hadn’t lost four straight games that he played in since his last four games in uniform with the Brooklyn Nets in 2022. He says that there is not one particular voice in the locker room that is keeping the group together as much as it is the entire team.
“All of us, man, we’re all in this together,” Harden said after finishing Sunday’s game with his worst plus-minus since his first game against the Nets as a member of the 76ers in March 2022. “It’s not just one person. We’re all trying to figure it out together. So we all got positive energy, all trying to figure it out, and obviously, it’s tough losing games consecutively. But we’re all in this thing together. We know the bigger picture.”
George, who led the team with 26 points in the losing effort, was another player that Lue has had to direct to be more aggressive and less of the “glue guy” that George suggested he needed to be more of in the wake of losing forwards Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum (and to a lesser extent, former starter Marcus Morris Sr. and offseason trade acquisition KJ Martin). All of those forwards were traded to the 76ers in the Harden deal, and the Clippers have to find the right balance of how to play and who is playing.
“I think it’s just, when you got a lot of ballhandlers, a lot of playmakers, and I think just from guys used to having it, you’re used to hanging around and getting the ball after rebounds, after steals,” George said after Sunday’s loss. “Whereas before, you have those guys who would get out and know they got to be in front of the ball to stretch the floor out and be ready to catch and shoot in transition plays.”
“That’s just a little difference that we’re working through. But I mean yeah, we’re not too far off from how we approached camp,” George continued. “Besides this game, I thought the majority of the other games we got off to great starts. First quarters were great, and then we took a dip when the rotation changed.
“And to be honest, I think that’s just where we have to get better, when that rotation changes, and take it from there and keep the intensity high and energy high. And we just can’t allow teams to get life.”
The Clippers have now lost to teams that have been the worst first-quarter team (Los Angeles Lakers), the worst scoring team (New York Knicks), the worst steals team (Brooklyn Nets), the worst paint-scoring team (Dallas Mavericks), and now the worst record (Grizzlies) during this losing streak. Their next chance to stop the bleeding comes Tuesday on the road against the Denver Nuggets, the defending champion and a team that has beaten the Clippers 12 of the last 14 times going back to the 2020 bubble where the Clippers held a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
Tuesday’s game, a nationally televised In-Season Tournament contest, will be the Clippers’ fourth game in as many time zones.
“Different year,” said Leonard when asked what the Clippers need to do to win their first game in Denver since Christmas of 2020. “I mean we all have to do what we got to do to win a basketball game — play defense, limit them to one shot, run out in transition, execute our plays and shoot the ball with confidence.”
(Photo: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)