Russell Westbrook’s return gives Clippers last chance to fix unreliable play before playoffs

LOS ANGELES — For most of last week, it looked as if the LA Clippers had applied lessons learned from their bouts of weird basketball and understood what they needed to do to get their season back on track. Even if it included unserious moments, like future Hall of Famers playing defense on offense.

It also seemed like the Clippers were getting their roster back together. Kawhi Leonard keeps giving the team random injury scares such as what the Clippers called thoracic spasms two weeks ago, but he has only missed one start since the All-Star break. Paul George said his body feels good after he missed three games since the All-Star break, while James Harden returned after missing two games. Terance Mann came back after missing a start in Portland, starting center Ivica Zubac has been healthy for three weeks, and Norman Powell was ready to return after the Portland trip from a leg injury that cost him three games.

Finally, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue announced that Russell Westbrook would return this week after fracturing his left (non-shooting) hand on March 1. Westbrook wasn’t on the road trip to Portland, but the Clippers getting him back represents the final piece of the rotation for a team needing to turn it up a notch with the playoffs on the horizon.

“Another vet, leadership, who helps us on the court,” Harden said of Westbrook on Friday. “Who also is on the same mission we’re on, and that’s to win a championship. Glad to have him back.”

With all of that, of course the Clippers come home Sunday, give up the first seven points of the afternoon game to Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris, allow a season-worst 41 first-quarter points, trail by 17 points before halftime and tie the game in the third quarter only to trail by as many as 21 points in the fourth. The 76ers were short-handed, playing without reigning MVP Joel Embiid for the 25th straight game while also holding out rotation players such as Kyle Lowry, De’Anthony Melton and former Clippers Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum.

It didn’t matter in a 121-107 Sixers win in which the Clippers never led. They had a chance to not only establish their first three-game win streak since the seven-game Grammy road trip ended right before the trade deadline, but to show they are over the underwhelming performances against teams at a talent disadvantage. Instead, the Clippers (44-26) demonstrated just how uninspiring they can be and are just a half game ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans for fourth place in the Western Conference.

One week after being unable to score against an Atlanta Hawks team on which they dropped 149 points earlier in the season, the Clippers were unable to defend a 76ers team that has failed to break 100 points eight times since the All-Star break. The 76ers scored 133.0 points per 100 possessions Sunday, the worst defensive performance for the Clippers since they beat the Hawks 149-144 in Atlanta on Feb. 5.

The Clippers have trailed by double digits at some point in nine of their last 11 home games, going back to a Feb. 7 loss to the Pelicans. The two exceptions: losing a game to the Los Angeles Lakers in which they led by 21 points in the fourth quarter, and the night Westbrook injured his hand in a blowout win over a woebegone Washington Wizards team.

“It is embarrassing when you lose to teams like this,” an exasperated Lue said Sunday. “I’m not saying they don’t have great players over there, and Nick Nurse is a great coach. But when you come in minus Joel Embiid, then Nico sits out tonight, RoCo’s out, Kyle Lowry sits out, and you’re playing at home, you have to take advantage of those types of things and types of games. And so, it is frustrating showing the same thing over and over and not getting the results you want consistently. … You keep talking about it, but at some point, you’ve got to do it.”

It’s understandable why Lue is on the verge of profanity every week. You never know what you’re going to get from this team. Every other team in the NBA has won or lost three games in a row since the trade deadline except for the Clippers. The offense has become average, and the defense is bottom-five quality since that Grammy road trip. Teams have shot 41 percent from 3 since Westbrook got hurt, and only four teams have allowed more than the 14.4 3s per game the Clippers have allowed since March 2.

The Clippers should get some credit for responding to most of their bad losses, but they have shown that whatever solution they find is not sustainable. The primary stars have been the face of the malaise. The defense and rebounding are unbecoming of a team that is getting the most games and minutes out of Leonard in seven years. Just when you think George has it going, he has a fourth quarter against the 76ers in which he has three of his five turnovers and fails to score or pass for an assist, snapping his 20-point streak at nine games. Just when you think Harden has found his offense, he has another Sunday of pitiful shooting; Harden missed all six of his 3s against the 76ers and hasn’t broken 40 percent field goals on a Sunday since the All-Star break.

“I don’t think our focus has been where it needs to be,” said George, who was on the floor with Harden when the 76ers went on a 13-0 scoring run early in the fourth quarter that effectively ended the game.

Westbrook’s absence was supposed to serve as an opportunity for other players to get some run while the team figured out how to play without their backup point guard. Bones Hyland initially was the primary recipient of a minutes increase with Westbrook out, and he shot 44.4 percent from 3 in his first eight games in March, culminating with a standout performance in Chicago while starting in place of Harden. But in the 10 days since, Hyland went from starting in New Orleans to not even playing in garbage time against the 76ers, missing 12 of 13 3s and compiling more turnovers (nine) than assists (seven).

If anything, Westbrook’s time out of the lineup made it clear no one should expect playoff rotation minutes outside of the starting five, Powell, Amir Coffey, Westbrook and whatever big man Lue chooses between Daniel Theis, P.J. Tucker and Mason Plumlee. It was also telling that Leonard used Westbrook’s pending return to suggest the team should be better with any group of players on the floor.

“He’s another guy that comes in with energy, playing and giving us a fast pace, playing in transition, another defender on the floor, another scorer,” Leonard said after the Hawks loss when asked how much the Clippers miss Westbrook in the second unit. “So we definitely miss him. We played our first 50 games with him, or 50-something games. So it’s a rhythm break. But like I said, it’s between the ears with us. We’ve got to go out and do it. Even if he’s on the floor or not, it’s still five other guys that’s on that floor that could run hard and do what’s told.”


For Clippers’ Paul George, the ‘focus on moving forward’ means being healthy and playing

The Clippers need the jolt that comes with a Westbrook return to play. The hope is that, after some weeks off to rest and recover, Westbrook can get back to making the impact he made when the Clippers were playing their best. At the time of his injury, Westbrook’s appeared to be flagging somewhat.

Westbrook struggled for most of February, shooting only 40.2 percent overall and 21.2 percent on 3s while blocking only one shot in 247 minutes and grabbing just 2.8 rebounds per game. Compare that with Westbrook’s numbers in December: 53.8 percent field goals, 34.6 percent 3s, 10 blocks in 261 minutes and 6.4 rebounds.

The Clippers need the December version of Westbrook for their final regular season games and the playoffs. But what they need more than whatever statistics Westbrook might bring is someone to inspire, lead and play hard, whether or not shots are falling. Some of those items are measurable, but the Clippers lack intangibles right now. The Clippers weren’t exactly clicking for most of February with Westbrook, but the void without him has been noticeable.

“When stuff gets hard, you got to get tougher,” Lue said two weeks ago after the Clippers blew a 22-point lead in a lopsided loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves when asked about Westbrook not being on the floor while opponents go on extended scoring runs. “We can talk about schemes, we can talk about a lot of other things. But we just got to be tougher, mentally and physically.”

Westbrook’s return was supposed to be the final piece for a team getting ready for the playoffs. But now, it’s also the last card the Clippers can play as they try to convince themselves they’re not preparing to melt down this spring. Westbrook shouldn’t have to save this team with 12 games left and up to four teams chasing them down for the final top-four spot in the West, but that just might be his latest task after his longest in-season layoff since missing 14 games (29 days) in November 2014 due to a right-hand fracture.

“We can’t fall victim of being tired or what the schedule is,” Lue said Sunday. “We know we got to play better basketball going into the playoffs, or it’s going to be an early season.”

(Photo of Russell Westbrook: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

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