For a franchise that has gone all-in on its NBA title aspirations, this matchup against the reigning champions could have represented a litmus test.
Instead, Wednesday became just another night when the Clippers’ present and future plans hinged on medical tests.
Their roster battered and incomplete for the better part of two seasons, the Clippers continued their short-handed start in a 124-107 loss to Golden State without injured All-Star wings Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and sharpshooter Luke Kennard.
Marcus Morris Sr. scored a team-high 19 points, and Terance Mann and Norman Powell scored 17 apiece as the Clippers fell to 11-8, unable to rein in Andrew Wiggins’ season-high 31 points and 19 Golden State three-pointers.
“I wish we were full strength against anybody,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Just to get our rhythm and establish how we want to play. Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case this year, but it’s coming.”
Leonard had expressed little concern after he rolled his right ankle in Monday’s victory against Utah, but Lue said Leonard woke with soreness Tuesday and despite “feeling better,” Leonard has no timetable for a return, according to the coach.
Neither does George, who has not played since Nov. 19 because of a strained hamstring tendon, or Kennard, sidelined for a fourth consecutive game because of a strained calf.
“I’m sure they’re really anxious to get whole and when they are whole, you look at that roster, it’s pretty impressive,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They’re one of the teams you’ve got to think will be around in the end.”
The Clippers have been on the Warriors’ mind since the earliest days of their reign. During a July podcast appearance, only weeks after the Warriors clinched their fourth championship in eight seasons, defensive star Draymond Green called Lue’s team “a threat and a problem.”
Yet if the full-strength Clippers’ potential has opponents’ respect, reaching it has been impossible nearly one-quarter of the way into the schedule because they have not had a meaningful respite from injury since training camp closed.
The Clippers thrived last season while missing chunks of their rotation. That grit hasn’t been entirely extinguished. Despite allowing Klay Thompson 15 first-quarter points, scoring only 18 points themselves in the second quarter while largely avoiding shots in the paint and trailing by 19 after the Warriors closed the half on an 18-4 run, the Clippers trimmed their deficit to 11 in the third quarter.
When Golden State responded by exploiting miscommunication for a back-cut layup and three-pointer to push their lead to 16, the Clippers kept coming, cutting it to 11 again and then nine with three minutes to play in the third. Then a pair of three-pointers by Stephen Curry, who scored 22, added again to the Warriors cushion that was 16 after three quarters.
“I liked the way we kept fighting,” Lue said.
Even with the caveat that the Clippers’ most formidable names were missing, Wednesday revealed breakdowns they won’t be able to afford even when Leonard and George are back.
The Clippers emphasized transition defense in their pregame preparation, yet surrendered 14 fast-break points in the first half, highlighted by Thompson beating the defense back for an easy dunk in the first quarter. There were other game-plan mistakes too, as judged by the frequent sight of one player questioning another where he had been on a broken play.
When Curry checked back in with seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, the Warriors led by 21. Only 50 seconds later, that lead was 26.
Mann started in Leonard’s place and Amir Coffey for George, just as Lue turned to Coffey last season during George’s absence for months following his elbow injury. Coffey scored 13 points in 36 minutes with seven assists.
And with the Clippers suddenly light on versatile wings, Robert Covington played more than 20 minutes for only the third time in 11 appearances, after his rotation spot had been lost in recent weeks while Lue expanded Mann’s role. Covington made one of seven shots, and also took a Jordan Poole elbow to his jaw. Covington said he understood when Lue told him this month that the team wanted to try a different direction.
“He just told me, stay with him,” Covington said.
Even with only 10 healthy players, Lue still made choices with his minutes. One game after committing eight turnovers and not playing in the fourth quarter, guard John Wall sat the final 10 minutes. The Clippers were outscored by 25 in his 21 minutes.
“We just got to take into account that he hasn’t played in two years and as good as he’s been for us all year, it’s only his 13th or 14th game in two years,” Lue said.
“It’s going to take some time for that. We understood that and he’s actually playing way better than I expected him to this early in the season.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.