Clippers’ hot start imploded in the worst half in NBA history. But they see positives

Clippers' Serge Ibaka shoots over Dallas' Maxi Kleber on Dec. 27 at Staples Center.
The ClippersSerge Ibaka shoots over Dallas’ Maxi Kleber on Dec. 27 at Staples Center. (John McCoy / Getty Images)

One day after the Clippers suffered their most lopsided defeat in franchise history, center Serge Ibaka called himself comfortable with the direction his team is headed.

“I don’t think last night’s gonna define who we are,” Ibaka said Monday.

Who are the Clippers, exactly, through three games? Before becoming the first NBA team in the 66-year shot-clock era to fall behind by 50 points at halftime, en route to a 51-point loss to Dallas, the Clippers had held off the Lakers and Denver by improving their offensive and defensive execution during critical moments.

But after taking a punch from Dallas early in Sunday’s first quarter, however, “they should have had more fight,” coach Tyronn Lue said before practice.

Ibaka, the 11-year veteran, believes offense won’t be a problem for the Clippers, even though they made only four of 33 three-pointers, shot 34% overall and attacked the paint just 16 times in the loss, according to Lue. The misfires belied the quality of many attempts. Fifteen three-pointers were taken when the closest defender was six or more feet away, the NBA’s definition of wide open. The problem was, the Clippers made only two of them.

What will define the Clippers, Ibaka said, is their willingness to compete on defense consistently.

“We cannot forget that defense wins championships,” he said.

Said second-year guard Terance Mann: “We got a new defensive coach so new defensive schemes, things of that nature. To be locked in defensively isn’t an easy thing to do, and it will take time. We got plenty of games left so it will come as time goes. But we are on the right track.”

Getting Kawhi Leonard (lacerated mouth) and Marcus Morris (sore knee) back in the lineup would provide a boost to the defense, and Lue said both would practice Monday, though the extent of their workload was unclear given the practice was scheduled to be a “mental day” for the team, according to Mann.

Lue didn’t say whether either would play Tuesday against Minnesota, offering only that the team would “see how they feel.”

“I’ve been in the league for 24 years and so I’ve seen crazy things happen. But it’s over and it’s behind us and now we’ve got to look forward,” Lue said of the loss. “We can’t keep dwelling on what happened last year and what happened last game. Now we’ve got to focus on Minnesota, and I think our guys are in the right frame of mind to do that.”

Ibaka and Lue’s confidence in the Clippers’ direction is based on more data points than three games. Having been inside practices and huddles, they expressed a strong belief that the team is building good habits.

“They kicked our butt, no excuses, but I really liked the way our guys and Kawhi and Marcus and Serge and [Paul George] and Pat [Beverley] and those guys were very encouraging to the young guys who were playing most of the second half,” Lue said. “Just staying engaged and still being a part of the team.”

While coaches met in a separate huddle during one timeout Sunday, Leonard pulled down his mask to say a few words to his teammates. The moment, though brief, was consistent with the way the typically reticent Leonard has attempted to be more vocal.

Upon his hiring in October, Lue challenged Leonard and George to make their teammates better through the way they play. In Leonard’s case, that emphasis has extended to the way he carries himself, said Ibaka, who knows better than most the kind of confidence Leonard can instill in teammates from winning a title alongside him in Toronto two seasons ago.

“I talked to him when I got here and I told him, ‘Listen, you are our leader, and we need to follow you by example, you know?’” Ibaka said. “Leaders need not only to come on the court and score 30 points. You have to show the team, your teammates, like you’re willing to give everything for them. You’re here to win a championship and you really want to win a championship and we all gonna follow you.

“And so far, he be doing a great job on that. He been communicating with everybody, he be coming earlier for his work, staying [late]. This is something really new I see from Kawhi. I remember the last time I was in Toronto, I see Kawhi coming in early and put some work and stay after practice and so far this year, he be doing that. So that’s something you want to see from your best player.”

NEXT UP

Wednesday vs. Minnesota

When: 7 p.m.

On the air: Prime Ticket. Radio: 570

Update: Both the Timberwolves (2-1) and Clippers (2-1) are coming off losses Sunday by at least 40 points. Minnesota will play without center Karl-Anthony Towns because of a dislocated left wrist that will keep the centerpiece of Minnesota’s lineup out for an indefinite period. … Anthony Edwards, the No. 1 draft pick last month, has averaged 16.0 points on 42% shooting with 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists through three games.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.