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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Andrew Greif

Clippers’ title hopes take a seat for at least one more game in loss to Bucks

LOS ANGELES — Around 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, as a little more than three hours remained until the NBA’s trade deadline, the Los Angeles Clippers didn’t have any trades close to happening, said Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations.

By 7:30 p.m. on Friday, the fruits of those final hours could be seen on the home team’s bench inside Arena as guards Eric Gordon and Bones Hyland and center Mason Plumlee settled into seats next to their new Clippers teammates to watch an eventual 119-106 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Each filled one or more of the team’s deadline objectives, Frank said, the combination of which, he believed, had advanced their ultimate priority — improving the rotation of players and diversifying the options they can use around Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the postseason as they pursue the franchise’s first championship in a crowded Western Conference race.

“We can’t be worried about what other teams did,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “Teams made some good moves. But we got to focus on ourselves and how we can get better, and make sure we are one of these elite teams.”

Whether they will be by the postseason’s start in nine weeks depends on how quickly a team that has faced continuity problems all season can reset its rotations.

Friday represented another lost opportunity, with Hyland, Gordon and Plumlee in street clothes and Leonard sitting out for what Lue called precautionary reasons.

Reserve forward Nicolas Batum also did not play, watching with a physical therapy belt wrapped around his waist.

One of the Clippers’ goals before the deadline was to improve its present while protecting its future, which meant a reticence to deal away future first-round picks — the Clippers’ 2019 trade for Paul George having previously limited their available draft assets, of course — and younger players such as Terance Mann and Brandon Boston Jr.

With Leonard out, Boston earned his first career start, scoring 20 points in 26 minutes, the bulk scored after the loss was already decided.

The Clippers’ start, as a whole, was inauspicious, a 10-2 hole within four minutes forcing a timeout by Lue.

But by the quarter’s end, seven turnovers by Milwaukee — playing on the second consecutive night — helped build what became a 19-2 Clippers run and a five-point lead.

Midway through the second quarter another Clippers run, this time 11-1, extended their lead to seven, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 16 points before halftime not enough — unlike during his 54-point performance one week earlier — to overwhelm.

That came later.

Unlike last week in Milwaukee, when Bucks center Brook Lopez’s presence dragged down Bucks lineups, Lopez was not played off the floor, scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds.

With Lopez in, the Clippers tried guarding him with starting center Ivica Zubac, which left a smaller wing on Antetokounmpo, who bulldozed his way to the rim for 35 points.

It was a matchup that showed why adding size had been such an obvious deadline priority. Plumlee could not help Friday but will be counted on to backstop Zubac as soon as the next game on Tuesday night.

The experience of the 34-year-old Gordon and 32-year-old Plumlee gave Lue cautious optimism both could catch on quickly.

Plumlee’s appeal wasn’t only his frame but his passing, which the team hopes will fill a skill set the bench had lost last summer when backup center Isaiah Hartenstein departed in free agency.

The similarly playoff-tested Gordon will slide into a bench lineup alongside Norman Powell, the Clippers keen on Gordon’s floor-spacing when he doesn’t have the ball — “he’s not a three-point shooter, he’s a four-point shooter,” Frank said — and driving when he does, as well as his defense.

If there were any doubt the Clippers have been enamored with Hyland since he worked out with the team before the 2021 NBA draft, it was dashed when the volume of Frank’s voice rose and his expression changed into a smile while introducing the 22-year-old, 6-3 guard as “Bizzy Bones!”

The guard earned all-rookie honors last season but was shipped out of top-seeded Denver after he was reportedly frustrated by not receiving a more prominent role.

“He had some different things this year were things didn’t go way, so that’s why he’s available,” Frank said.

Can he crack a potential eight- or nine-man Clippers playoff rotation? Lue compared Hyland’s ability to score in bunches quickly and energize teammates to former Clippers sixth man Lou Williams.

“I think he averaged like 14 minutes a game in the playoffs being 20, 21 years old,” Lue said. “So he’s been there.

“He’s been on an elite team that he played in the playoffs. And so he has an experience, and just from what I gather, just watching him play and how he plays, he’s not scared of the moment. He’s not afraid of the moment.”

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