Shorthanded Clippers erase double-digit deficit but fall to Jazz

Over the course of two days this week, what could be the Clippers’ future spilled over into the team’s present as a team ravaged by injuries turned to its long-term projects in search of wins right now.

Just as rookie forward Moussa Diabate and second-year guard Jason Preston played a G League game Monday in California before flying the next day to Portland in time for a comeback win against the Trail Blazers, second-year wing Brandon Boston Jr. flew into Utah as a reinforcement.

Their arrivals yielded a general consensus: The kids are all right.

One night after Diabate’s boundless energy changed the tenor of a dreary start in Portland as part of an 18-point Clippers comeback, Diabate and Boston Jr. were inserted late in Wednesday’s fourth quarter when the Clippers needed any semblance of energy while trailing 90-76 to a Jazz team that had lost four straight. Less than four minutes later, Boston had made a three-pointer, Diabate had corralled an offensive rebound into a put-back layup while being fouled and the Jazz lead was down to just three.

That their plans for a rally quickly unraveled from there, eventually ending in a 125-112 loss to fall to 13-10, was only one way to judge the night.

With the injured Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Luke Kennard “back soon,” as coach Tyronn Lue hinted – perhaps as soon as Saturday – the Clippers could soon resemble the team they envisioned during a healthy preseason, one where nearly every minute is reserved for decade-plus veterans and established younger players. It was why the minutes suddenly afforded to Diabate, Preston and Boston Jr. during a two-game road trip with otherwise little buzz offered a small-sample window into the big-picture potential the Clippers have worked to expand for the past six weeks, since training camp closed and the youngest Clippers largely decamped for more game reps with the team’s G League affiliate in Ontario.

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Diabate scored 11 points with eight rebounds off the bench against the Jazz in a career-high 16 minutes, while Boston scored 10 in 22 minutes. With backup guard John Wall available to play after missing Tuesday’s first night of a back-to-back, Preston’s usage as an additional ballhandler weren’t needed until the game was out of reach; he played four minutes.

Since 2017, when the Clippers added a G League affiliate in Ontario, the franchise has pursued player development on a two-track philosophy – attempting to win now with their NBA roster while using the G League to build their least experienced players’ skillsets for down the road by running nearly the exact same offense and defense as the Clippers. It wasn’t a given that the work being done on the first track would show up on the main, NBA stage this season because the Clippers’ roster was one of the league’s most veteran-laden and their rotation one of the most crammed — inhibiting opportunities for the young Clippers, until a spate of injuries changed circumstances. Norman Powell didn’t play against Utah after injuring a groin late against the Trail Blazers.

“It’s tough because we have a veteran team and those guys have done a great job in the G League playing really well and doing all the right things,” Lue said. “Sometimes you’ve got to reward the young guys for playing well, to let them know that we do see what you’re doing and we recognize that you are playing in the G League but you’re doing some good things. Having the opportunity to play those guys last night was really good.”

With the exception of needing to quickly learn a couple new plays Tuesday afternoon to combat Portland’s zone defense, Preston and Diabate said they felt completely comfortable carrying out their roles because of their time running the Clippers’ playbook with Ontario, where Diabate had averaged 18 points on 62% shooting with 10 rebounds in his first 10 G League games. Preston, essentially a rookie after missing all of last season with a foot injury, had averaged 12 points and nearly seven assists. Before Wednesday, Boston had not played since an opponent’s knee rammed into his thigh on Nov. 12.

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Diabate had played all of six NBA minutes before playing all 12 of Tuesday’s fourth quarter in Portland, with Lue sticking with the springy 6-foot-9 French native over starting center Ivica Zubac in the final minutes because of plays like his stop of a Justise Winslow drive into the paint before recovering to the perimeter forcing Trendon Watford to bobble his dribble, leading to a steal.

“His length, his athleticism, it seems like he’s got pretty quick instincts on that end of the floor and can be pretty disruptive,” Jazz coach Will Hardy said. “I think he showed last night the ability to really change a game.”

The Clippers outscored Portland by 19 points in Diabate’s nearly 13 minutes of total game time, and afterward, Diabate looked nothing like a groggy guy who had woken up at 6 a.m. in California to catch a northbound flight alongside Preston, the 19-year-old’s rat-a-tat conversation with teammates heard at full volume around the locker room.

Preston scored three points in six minutes against Portland and “came in and played real steady, controlling the tempo, made a big three, made some good passes,” Lue said. The team considered Preston the second-best passer in the 2021 draft but coaches have worked with him to understand that passing lanes will open even wider if the 6-4 Preston embraces using his frame to look for his own shot first.

“A lot of times he’s looking to pass even before he looks at the rim, and so we’ve told him you got to be aggressive, looking to score first, and that will open up your passing,” Lue said.

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