At first, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue tried getting his team’s attention by burning a timeout only 32 seconds into Monday’s third quarter.
Hours after center Ivica Zubac acknowledged that the team’s defense could be “much better [at] communicating,” the Clippers had just lost track of Atlanta’s Tony Snell, allowing Kawhi Leonard’s former high school teammate to run to a corner unnoticed and drain a wide-open three-pointer. Lue barely spoke to players during the timeout. Players were left to sort out how they were trailing by 18 points.
When that didn’t stem the trouble, Lue was even less subtle. Down 21 with 6 minutes 29 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Lue removed all five starters and inserted an all-bench lineup featuring rotation players Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum alongside little-used Patrick Patterson, Luke Kennard and Amir Coffey.
It wasn’t a white flag. It was a challenge.
By the fourth quarter’s end, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer was shaking his fists in the air in giddy joy, Kennard was bounding up the court, howling at the roof of an empty Staples Center, and the once-dead Clippers finished off the once-cruising Hawks for a 119-110 victory that left Lue pumping his fist in the final moments.
The difference was the bench, whose frenetic defense and 21-10 run to end the third quarter lit the fuse of a comeback that ended Atlanta’s eight-game winning streak in stunning fashion.
After trailing 88-66 with 4:15 remaining in the third quarter, the Clippers outscored the Hawks 53-22.
“I just wanted to put a group in to try to change it up,” Lue said. “Play hard and compete. Those guys did a hell of a job.”
It secured consecutive victories for the Clippers (28-16) for the first time since Feb. 14-15.
Kennard scored 20 points and made all eight of his shots, including a banked-in three-pointer from halfcourt to end the third quarter. The Clippers outscored Atlanta (22-21) by 30 points during his 19 minutes, a career-high plus-minus. When Kennard walked into the locker room, teammates showered him with water, Lue said.
Mann registered the second double-double of his career with 21 points and 10 rebounds, at times directing the offense with his drives and passes. Leonard scored 25 points and Marcus Morris 19. Leonard and Paul George, who scored eight points, were among the starters re-inserted to close the final nine minutes, and then Morris joined with six minutes to play. They finished the game with the duo that had helped start the rally: Kennard and Mann.
Those two had been intertwined in recent weeks but in a far different way. The rise of Mann, a second-round pick in his second season, had kept Kennard, who signed a four-year extension worth $56 million guaranteed in December, out of the rotation.
But while playing in blowouts during his last four appearances, Kennard had quietly made 18 of 31 shots. The Clippers have had trouble trusting his readiness to play aggressively this season, as he has returned from bilateral knee tendinitis while adjusting to a new team, but Lue said he had taken note of how diligently Kennard kept preparing even when his role was reduced to clapping on the sideline.
Lue said he was “so happy” for Kennard’s big night.
As energized as the Clippers appeared by the run, it generated no small amount of frustration that such a drastic measure had been deemed necessary. Only three days before the trade deadline, the Clippers began the night by trading Mfiondu Kabengele, a first-round pick the team had traded up to acquire in 2019, to Sacramento to free his $2-million salary from the team’s books and open a second roster spot.
The moves could set up a flurry of more moves as Thursday’s deadline nears, with the Clippers believed to be looking for improvements around the margins of its rotation, particularly in the backcourt. No extra body can make up for defensive effort lagging as much as it did at times through Monday’s first half, though.
Averaging 22.4 points during Atlanta’s eight-game winning streak entering Monday, Trae Young nearly reached that by halftime by scoring 20 points, including five free throws — only two fewer than all the Clippers combined. Young made three of nine field-goal attempts in the second half to finish with a team-high 28 points.
The Hawks made eight of their last 24 shots.
“This was a big win for us,” Lue said, “and is hopefully a huge step forward for us as well.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.