Clippers’ blowout loss to Pelicans an ominous sign ahead of critical week

To avoid the play-in tournament, or hold onto home-court advantage for a first-round series, the Clippers need a big finish to the regular season.

That will be more difficult to pull off with starts like Saturday’s.

Facing the New Orleans Pelicans, the Clippers lost the first five minutes of the first quarter by nine points.

Two minutes into the second quarter, their 11-point deficit had grown to 19.

Barely more than four minutes into the third quarter, their 12-point deficit was up to 18.

With the suspense all but sucked out of what would become a 131-110 Clippers loss, the attention during the second half turned toward what was happening off-stage. Elbowed in the face by Pelicans wing Brandon Ingram, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard left for the locker room with four minutes remaining in the third quarter, with team executives quickly leaving their seats to follow him down the arena tunnel.

Leonard suffered a facial contusion, according to the team, and did not return. Not that there was any need. The Clippers were so thoroughly routed that coach Tyronn Lue inserted the team’s G League reserves with eight minutes still remaining in the fourth quarter.

Again and again, the Pelicans’ best shooters found and made open shots.

Again and again, the Clippers could never apply enough pressure to change that — an ominous sign for a critical week ahead as they face Western Conference opponents in three of their next four games and jockey for position in tightly packed standings.

The Clippers are now 39-36 and left the night in sixth after entering it in fourth. The loss could be felt for days not only because of Leonard’s unclear timeline for a return but the fact it clinched New Orleans the head-to-head tiebreaker. That could be significant, with New Orleans (37-37) looming just one game behind in the loss column.

Clippers guard Terance Mann, right, tries to shoot in front of New Orleans Pelicans forward Naji Marshall during the first half Saturday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

One game after making 13 of his 15 shots to will the Clippers to a victory against Oklahoma City, Leonard missed all six of his three-pointers and made just four of his 16 shots for 12 points. Russell Westbrook made four of his 12 shots, for 14 points.

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Hours before tipoff, there was a modest sign of optimism when guard Norman Powell, sidelined by an injury to his left, non-shooting, shoulder since March 2, posted to Instagram a collection of photos of him taking part in practice against various levels of contact.

But Powell isn’t expected to be back by the next game, Monday against the Chicago Bulls, still needing to hit a few more benchmarks in his recovery before he’s cleared for game action. Paul George, of course, also won’t be on the court anytime soon because of a sprained right knee.

But if there were any opponent most likely to have zero sympathy about the Clippers’ injury woes, it is New Orleans.

A hamstring injury has sidelined star forward Zion Williamson since Jan. 2. Guard Jose Alvarado hasn’t played since Feb. 27 because of a tibia injury. And though Saturday was the 74th game for New Orleans, it was only Brandon Ingram’s 37th.

Most concerning for the Clippers, then, was that New Orleans did not need its full complement of players to take control. They needed only two.

After three baskets by Ingram within New Orleans’ first possessions, the Clippers called a timeout while trailing by eight only 128 seconds into the game. On one possession, Pelicans teammates Ingram and Dyson Daniels ran into each other while running to the three-point arc in a clear miscommunication — and yet Ingram still got open for a three-pointer he swished.

Then the Clippers lost track of Trey Murphy for four first-quarter three-pointers — defensive miscommunications made all the more notable because of the dearth of other shooting options against which the Clippers needed to defend.

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By the first quarter’s end, the Pelicans made nine of their 11 three-pointers to lead by 11, and the combination of Ingram and Murphy’s 26 points equaled the Clippers’ total. It was the second consecutive game since the revamped starting lineup missing George created a first-quarter deficit instead of an advantage.

But where reserves such as guards Bones Hyland and Terance Mann infused energy and pace that jump-started Thursday’s first-quarter comeback, their impact didn’t translate two days later. For good measure, Murphy drilled his fifth three-pointer and slammed an alley-oop lob early in the second quarter to help build New Orleans’ lead to as many as 19.

When the Clippers pulled within 10 midway through the second and Lue implemented a small lineup without a center, a second of fans behind the basket nearest the team bench began a loud “We want Ro-Co” chant, pleading for Lue to insert little-used forward Robert Covington. Covington did not come in for Marcus Morris Sr. until four minutes remained in the third quarter and the Clippers down 19.

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