For eight minutes Friday, the Clippers played like the team that left training camp openly declaring its championship aspirations — their long-armed defenders forcing consecutive stops on one end, their litany of shooters blowing open a lead with ruthless efficiency on the other.
For the final 40 minutes, though, they looked like the team they have actually been since the season’s start — uneven, uncomfortable, unexpectedly missing a key player and unable to hold onto a lead.
It was San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich who, in September, playfully suggested that his team — widely expected to be among the teams playing for the No. 1 pick ahead of a draft headlined by French phenom Victor Wembanyama — might not be the best Las Vegas bet for a championship season. But nine games in, it’s the Clippers’ preseason expectation of being one of the West’s top contenders that has continued to look shaky.
Yet trailing by 10 in the third quarter, the Clippers ran their winning streak to three games in a 113-106 win by summoning clutch plays instead of caving, with John Wall at the center two nights after the veteran guard had played a minimal role.
With guard Luke Kennard joining Paul George, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac in the starting lineup for the second straight game, the Clippers (5-4) quickly fell behind 6-2, only to score 23 of the game’s next 25 points, including 16 unanswered at one stretch as the Spurs’ scoreless streak reached four minutes.
Coach Tyronn Lue stuck with his starters out of the Spurs’ second timeout, but the magic quickly faded, and it devolved entirely once Lue turned to his bench. Every reserve produced a negative plus-minus in the first half — including being outscored by 16 in Norman Powell’s 14 minutes — as the Spurs stormed back to lead by four at halftime. At one point Morris and Spurs forward Zach Collins began pushing and shoving one another after a foul Collins took issue with, and both were issued technical, but it did little to enliven the Clippers, who were again short-handed.
When Kennard left for the locker room after the first quarter, Powell took his place with the starting lineup that closed the first half and opened the second so unevenly that Lue called a timeout within the third quarter’s first 2:08. Kennard did not return because of what the team termed chest discomfort.
By the middle of the third quarter, San Antonio’s lead grew to 10.
Coming off a season-low 15 minutes Wednesday in Houston after he was benched for the final nine minutes, Wall played unevenly during the first half, his jump shot continuing not to fall — and continuing to take shots even when the Spurs went under screens, unafraid of allowing him to shoot from the midrange.
Yet Wall was superb during a second-half comeback, his actions directly leading to points on four consecutive possessions to pull the Clippers within 94-93 early in the fourth quarter.
Wall, who entered Friday making only 33% of his catch-and-shoot attempts, took a pass from Reggie Jackson and swished a wing three-pointer, then used his speed to burst into the paint for a dump-off assist to center Ivica Zubac and a transition layup. Out of a San Antonio timeout, Wall scored on another layup.
Just as Lue had played Powell the entire fourth quarter two days earlier in Houston because he judged Powell was playing the best, Lue stuck with Wall after entering him at the midway point of the fourth quarter.
There was good news for the Clippers before tipoff, with forward Robert Covington no longer in health and safety protocols, which means he will likely be available for Sunday’s home game against Utah.