Consider it a warning from soft-spoken Kawhi Leonard. And it wasn’t the first such warning he has issued to his Clipper teammates.
Leonard has been saying recently that the Clippers have been winning on sheer talent, and that they’re still falling short of their maximum potential in many areas. He said it again Monday, and pointedly so, after the Minnesota Timberwolves took the Clippers apart in the third quarter of the visitors’ 121-100 victory at Crypto.com Arena.
His voice was quiet, but his meaning was loud and clear: they can’t rely on talent alone, and they must back that up every game with consistent effort and discipline at both ends of the floor.
“There’s going to be games like this moving forward as well. That’s up to you all to write about,” Leonard said to reporters at a postgame news conference. “But like I said, we have to look at what we’re doing, the things we’re not doing well, and try and get better at it before it starts getting real.”
It’s getting near the time when things get real.
A win on Monday would have vaulted the Clippers past the Timberwolves and into the No. 1 spot in the West, but they struggled with Minnesota’s imposing size and the effectiveness of Karl-Anthony Towns (24 points) and Anthony Edwards (23). The Clippers actually surged ahead late in the second quarter with an 8-0 run and took a 64-62 lead in the third quarter before they committed a series of turnovers and sagged on defense.
From there, Minnesota outscored them by an astounding 27-8 and never looked back.
“I thought our physicality wasn’t there,” coach Tyronn Lue said after the Clippers (35-17) dropped to third in the West, a game and a half behind Minnesota and a half-game behind No. 2 Oklahoma City.
“And they played better than we did. Outcoached us, outplayed us, and everything.”
No arguing there.
“I felt like we started off with a lot of turnovers,” said center Ivica Zubac, who is still on a post-injury minutes restriction and also got into early foul trouble. “They had a lot of easy ones in transition and I think that was the biggest issue in the third quarter.”
Minnesota (37-16) made it the reason for the Clippers’ downfall on Monday. Too often, the Clippers went deep in the shot clock and didn’t get a good enough shot, and they didn’t have enough ball movement.
“If we’re not making quick decisions, playing the right way, they’re going to make you look bad offensively, and that’s what they did for the whole game,” Lue said. “I thought their length bothered us. I thought us holding the ball and being really stagnant really hurt us. And if we don’t get it side to side and make quick decisions they’re the No. 1 defensive team in the league for a reason.
“You’ve got to be smart about it. And you definitely can’t turn the ball over like we did to start the third quarter.”
Zubac agreed. “We got a lot of space for improvement on offense, and one of the things is just getting off the ball quicker,” he said. “Especially against a team like Minnesota. They’ve got long, big athletic guys who are good one-on-one defenders.
“So I think these are the games where we’ve got to move the ball side to side, set multiple pick and rolls, drive into the paint, kick out, collapse the defense, and stuff like that. That’s something we got to work on and that’s definitely something we can improve on.”
Zubac, like his teammates, keeps an eye on the standings. It might not seem a big deal that they missed a chance to take over the No. 1 spot in the conference with the All-Star game still ahead this weekend and 30 games left in their regular-season schedule, but they would have welcomed the psychological reward of sitting atop the West. There’s no guarantee they’ll get the chance again.
“Since the beginning of the season we wanted to be as high as possible, No. 1 seed in the West,” Zubac said. “We look at it. We’re trying to win as many games as we can. We want to have that home court advantage. That’s one of our goals.
“We want to be as serious as possible a team in the regular season, try to get as many as we can. We’re right there. There’s still a lot to play and we can go down, we can go up, but our goal is definitely to finish first in the West.”
The Clippers have one more game, at Golden State on Wednesday, before the All-Star break. After that, they have back-to-back games at Oklahoma City and Memphis on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23. They’re not home again until Feb. 25, against Sacramento.
By then, the Clippers must play like they know their talent alone, deep though it is, isn’t enough to get them where they want to go.
“We’re right there,” Leonard said when asked if the Clippers are a championship-caliber team. “We’ve been winning games, as everybody has seen. And like I said before, there’s ways for us to get better, and we know that — and that’s what’s scary.
“We started jelling a little late and now is the time to kind of turn it around.”
He said it softly. But when he speaks, the Clippers should listen.