Perhaps after playing in an NBA Finals and winning a Game 7 as a coach, the stakes of a late-February game between two teams headed toward the play-in tournament pale in comparison.
Or maybe it was because he just really enjoyed the song.
In any case, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue did not look like a man overly worried that his team trailed the Lakers by one point Friday with less than 90 seconds to play while one of the league’s ultimate closers, LeBron James, dribbled upcourt with a chance to pad the lead. Lue was visibly nodding his head and moving his shoulders to the rhythm of the song played over Crypto.com Arena’s speakers, catching the beat while strategizing whether his team could catch up.
That’s Lue, his players and coaches say — unmoved by the moment.
Though a case could be made that it is either a carryover effect from last season or a confidence the Clippers have found this season, what is indisputable is that their coach’s confidence has rubbed off.
“When you see a coach out there vibing like that,” wing Terance Mann said, “you start vibing.”
That the Clippers eventually eked out a 105-102 victory Friday to earn the tiebreaker in the season series against their arena co-tenants was not particularly surprising if you know Lue, or the Clippers who share his comfort in otherwise stressful situations. Despite playing largely without their most talented scorers and defenders this season, the Clippers have become one of the NBA’s more dependable late-game closers. Friday’s victory improved their record in the final minute of games where the score is within one possession — three points or fewer — to 13-8.
The Clippers (31-31) overcame a 100-95 deficit Friday by making 11 of their final 13 shots from the field while the Lakers missed their last six shots. Each highlighted the teams’ diverging efficiencies late in games this season.
In the final minute of games within three points, the Clippers are shooting 65.5%, including a league-high 64% accuracy on three-pointers (nine for 14). The Lakers, meanwhile, are shooting 32% overall and 22% from deep in the same circumstances.
Such “clutch” statistics can be cherry-picked endlessly depending on the minute and point differential — but even in the NBA’s broadest definition of “clutch,” as games within five points in the final five minutes, the Clippers have stood out as unusually effective, making 53% of their shots and 50% of their three-point attempts, 37 of their 74.
They’ve more than doubled their assists against their turnovers, held opponents to 28% three-point shooting and rank among the league leaders in limiting opponents’ points scored off of turnovers.
“I credit that to great coaching,” Mann said. “[Lue] is out there having us locked in. He puts us in a bunch of different situations whether that’s mentally or out there really physically on the court during practice.”
Yet while playing a league-high 61 games before the All-Star break, the Clippers hardly held formal practices that would allow them to drill situational basketball. How, with lineups often jumbled because of injuries, have they managed to develop a sense of comfort?
“Whether we have film sessions, whether we have walk-through, there’s a lot of conversation” driven by Lue, Mann said. “‘In this situation we’re going to do this, in this situation we’re going to do that.’”
Only Western Conference-leading Phoenix, Chicago, Memphis and Washington have produced a higher plus-minus rating than the Clippers in the final five minutes of games within five points. Those minutes have not been without their adventures or mistakes.
After one of two lengthy official reviews Friday gave the Clippers the ball back but only less than two seconds to cross half court, point guard Reggie Jackson couldn’t rush it across, giving the Lakers, down just one point, a chance to take the lead with 18 seconds left.
“Trying to find the right guy that was open, I wasn’t sure if I could make the pass and in a split second I thought about, ‘Could I get across myself or could I make the pass?’” Jackson said. “I think that wasted about half a second within our 1.5 [seconds], and then there was no way I can get across. I just got to be better. We talked about it. We drew it up out of the timeout and that’s on me.”
Carmelo Anthony missed a three-point try with four seconds to play on the ensuing possession and Robert Covington collected one of his three defensive rebounds in the final 1:41. Covington also figured into one of the game’s most hotly debated moments by stepping between a pass from James to Russell Westbrook with 26 seconds left, his steal appearing to hit the out-of-bounds line. It triggered a lengthy replay review that ruled James had stepped out of bounds before making his pass, a call the NBA upheld as correct Saturday morning.
Clutch late-game play is usually the domain of superstars or rosters afforded the luxury of continuity. The Clippers have had neither for the last two months yet are back to .500 for the first time since Feb. 3 in part through their late play. Their latest example left them sauntering off the court late Friday, not quite dancing in celebration, but never more comfortable.
“One of the main points of this team, especially that Ty Lue emphasizes, is executing,” said forward Amir Coffey, who scored 12 fourth-quarter points. “… When you come down to a late game like that, it’s usually the last two plays, or it’s making the right read, or running the play correct.”
When: 4 p.m. PST, Sunday.
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220.
Update: The Rockets (15-44), who lost to the Clippers by 31 points on Feb. 17, are coming off an eight-point loss to Orlando on Friday, Houston’s eighth consecutive loss. It was Covington’s experience in Houston two seasons ago playing as a small-ball center that has helped ease his transition to the Clippers’ smaller lineups in the last three weeks, Mann said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.