The Clippers’ comeback came out of the blue.
It turned out to be too good to be true.
Trailing by 21 points Friday on their home court coated in two hues of blue, the Clippers had few baskets and fewer answers for the New Orleans Pelicans. And the game was just 10 minutes old.
But nudged by the scoring of Norman Powell, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers led by as many as six points in the third quarter, looking every bit like a team that had regained confidence during its previous week by winning three consecutive games.
Led by Zion Williamson’s 32 points, and Brandon Ingram’s 30, the Pelicans (9-7) outscored the Clippers by eight in the final quarter as they went cold, making only two of 11 three-pointers in the fourth quarter en route to losing 116-106.
The Clippers are now 6-8. This was the beginning of a potentially revealing stretch of five games in seven nights, with another game coming Saturday against the Dallas Mavericks.
George scored 34 points, Leonard and Powell had 20 apiece and Ivica Zubac had 11 points but also four turnovers. James Harden finished with 10 assists, five rebounds and four steals but turned the ball over three times and made two of his eight shots. Other than Powell, the Clippers’ bench scored only six points, with Russell Westbrook making one of his eight shots in a season-low 14 minutes.
It was the Clippers’ final in-season tournament group-play game, and their scenarios involved either winning their group and advancing or not advancing at all — the Western Conference’s wild-card bid was already out of reach. Winning the group required meeting four conditions that involved plenty of help from opponents such as the Houston Rockets — but it all hinged on the very first condition, which was to win, and do so by at least 20 points. That appeared highly unlikely within the game’s first 10 minutes. By then, the Clippers already trailed 33-12, and had scored fewer points combined than the Pelicans’ Ingram (16).
Powell, after sitting out the second half of Wednesday’s win in San Antonio because of groin tightness, kept the possibility of a comeback alive by scoring 11 points in less than four minutes to close the first quarter and begin the second; he finished with 15 points in the first half.
What Powell started, George and Leonard sustained, the duo combining for 18 of the Clippers’ 32 points in the second quarter as the Clippers pulled to within 56-55 at halftime. In all, over the last 14 minutes of the first half, the Clippers outscored New Orleans 43-23 — a rally all the more notable because Westbrook and Harden, so often consistent sources of offense, had combined for four points before halftime.
When the second half opened, P.J. Tucker replaced Terance Mann in the starting lineup because of his ability to guard much larger players — in this case Williamson.
Though coach Tyronn Lue has said he wanted to avoid lineups without a center whenever possible, he has turned to them in a jam — and the Clippers found themselves in one during the fourth quarter when their surge stalled. With six minutes to play and the Clippers down 10, Zubac went to the bench and Mann returned in a five-wing lineup. It helped them pull to within four points with 35 seconds to play.
By that point, they didn’t have another comeback in them.