Clippers find irony in scoring struggles before losing to Jazz

Clippers find irony in scoring struggles before losing to Jazz

The Clippers’ stalwart point guard whipped out an invisible dictionary.

How could it be possible, through nine games to start the season, that these Clippers were last in the NBA in points per game? In offensive efficiency? These Clippers — even continuing to miss Kawhi Leonard — with Paul George, John Wall, Norman Powell and a crew of veteran talent capable of going for 30 points on any given night?

So guard Reggie Jackson, who has struggled himself to a 36% shooting start from the field, put it extravagantly in the locker room before Sunday night’s game at Crypto.com Arena:

“Definitely, it’s an oxymoron,” Jackson said. “All the talent we’ve acquired, all of the offensive firepower we have, we [have] one of the worst offensive ratings. So, it’s just a little ironic.”

Not one of — the worst, actually, heading into Sunday night’s game against the upstart Utah Jazz. Superstar George had done his part, averaging 23.8 points a night to start the year, on a tear over his last three games. Something had to give around him. Someone had to give.

But the Clippers just didn’t get enough Sunday, the oxymoron growing, a red-hot George accounting for 34 of their 102 points only to fall to a feisty Jazz squad that bombed and attacked their way to a 110-102 win.

After a 15-point first quarter, the Clippers fighting for every inch against a Jazz team bombing away from three-point range, he grabbed a rebound down 46-40 in the second and went to work, drawing a foul.

Then came the smoothness, the no-sweat handles that make George’s monster games seem just about easier than any superstar in the NBA’s, the mixing and shaking for a hop-step floater. Then a drive into the Jazz’s Kelly Olynyk, bumping him out of the way, finishing a sweet left-hand-layup. Then a staredown of Olynyk, kicking out, getting a pass back and just cold burying a three in Olynyk’s grill.

Suddenly, George had 24 with three minutes to go in the half and the Clippers had cut the lead to one.

Utah's Kelly Olynyk puts up a shot in front of Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. during the Clippers' loss Sunday.

Utah’s Kelly Olynyk puts up a shot in front of Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. during the Clippers’ loss Sunday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker puts up a shot between Clippers center Ivica Zubac and forward Robert Covington.

Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker, center, puts up a shot between Clippers center Ivica Zubac, left, and forward Robert Covington during the first half.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

But the Jazz, sensing the lack of a certain 7-foot Croatian on the floor, grabbed the momentum right back.

Before the game, Jackson shook his head, eyes widening at the thought: starting center Ivica Zubac, through nine games, was first in the entire league in blocks per game.

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” Jackson said.

This wasn’t the Timberwolves’ “Stifle Tower” Rudy Gobert, or the Memphis Grizzlies’ dynamo Jaren Jackson Jr., or the Indiana Pacers’ eraser Myles Turner. This was the Clippers’ very own Croatian mainstay, the 7-foot fun-loving Ivica Zubac, who’d never tallied more than a block per game across his seven NBA seasons but suddenly was swatting away an NBA-best 2.8 shots a night through the season’s first nine games.

“It’s been a nice start,” Jackson said, “and I think that’s definitely been a nice little bright spot within everything that’s going on right now.”

Everything going on now, defined: zero timetable for Kawhi Leonard’s return from knee tightness per coach Tyronn Lue, a number of the Clippers’ role players struggling to find their stride, Lue continuing to tinker with an abundance of veteran talent amidst their lineups. It’s made Zubac, lurking in the shadows of the paint, essential — and when he was off the floor Friday, the Jazz took advantage.

In the second quarter, after raining a parade of first-quarter threes, Utah blitzed the rim with Zubac off the floor — Olynyk straying from the three-point line for a driving layup, Collin Sexton bulldozing his way to the rim, Lauri Markannen drawing fouls on the interior. All of a sudden, the Clippers were down 63-56 at half, needing a heroic George effort to stay close.

Help was on the way. John Wall, the Clippers’ biggest offseason acquisition and a one-time All-NBA force with the Washington Wizards, was frustrated through much of the night. Barking at refs, the arena deflating as he missed four free throws.

And then the speed that once produced nightly highlights ignited.

As the Jazz started to go cold from three, Wall turned on the burners, repeatedly attacking helplessly backpedaling Jazz defenders. He burst his way to eight points in the final four minutes of the third quarter, Crypto.com Arena swelling at every transition runout, readying for another hanging lefty finish. In the fourth, he took off again, switching hands, holding his right fingers up high to the sky after blazing for his 12th point.

But his explosiveness was matched in the fourth by Sexton, who hung for an and-one that put the Jazz up 104-98 with three minutes to play. And with a minute to play, it was Olynyk’s turn for revenge on George, bullying his way into the paint and dumping to Sexton for an exclamation-point dunk that sealed the Clippers’ record at 5-5.

UP NEXT

VS. CLEVELAND

When: 7:30 p.m. PST Monday

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal, NBA TV; Radio: 570, 1220

Update: The Cavaliers (8-1) own the second-best record in the NBA after winning their eighth consecutive game Sunday, 114-100 over the Lakers. The Clippers will have to deal with former Utah Jazz All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who is averaging a fourth-best 31.4 points per game and 6.5 assists for Cleveland.

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