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With three key players out, Clippers can’t keep pace and lose to Nuggets

During a training camp that now feels much longer than two months ago, the Clippers, at that time fully healthy, believed the sheer depth of their loaded roster could forestall the ups and downs that come with a long season’s inevitable injuries.

Yet the absences of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and last season’s leading three-point shooter, Luke Kennard, create no mere dent in a lineup. All three will miss Sunday’s game against Indiana as well, and coach Tyronn Lue has acknowledged the “very slim” margin for error without them.

The Clippers then set out to prove their coach right.

In a first half Friday night inside Crypto.com Arena that was in some respects their best, the Clippers made 62.5% of their shots — their best accuracy of any first half this season, 24 minutes of Terance Mann blowing past star Denver guard Jamal Murray for a layup, then scoring at the rim by splitting the defense of Aaron Gordon and Bruce Brown en route to making six of his first seven shots for 13 points. He finished with 16.

Yet even with shooting like that, the Clippers trailed the Nuggets at halftime by a dozen. And even with backup guard John Wall making his first seven field-goal tries for a season-high 23 points, the Clippers saw their deficit grow to 17 in the third quarter despite barely cooling offensively.

Their margin from error went from slim to none because of the errors their shooting could not overcome in a 114-104 loss. Lue called turnovers their “Achilles’ heel,” and it took only 58 seconds for the night’s first, a too-long pass from Reggie Jackson that Murray turned into a three-pointer on the ensuing possession.

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By halftime, the Clippers had committed 11 that translated to 18 Denver points — nearly a third of the Nuggets’ halftime scoring total coming from the Clippers, who have lost two straight to fall to 11-9.

“If we can get those [turnovers] miraculously to eight to 10, then I like our chances,” Lue had said before tipoff. “But when they’re 18, 20, 22 turnovers, it’s hard to win a game.”

The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic shoots over the Clippers’ Ivica Zubac. Jokic had 19 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Even when the Clippers went the entire third quarter without a turnover, then ripped off an 11-2 run during the fourth quarter’s opening minutes, they still trailed by eight — a reflection of the trends that have doomed them around the margins not only against Denver but all season.

The Clippers rank fourth worst in the share of possessions that end in a turnover. They ultimately committed 14, eight more than the Nuggets (12-7).

The Clippers rank fourth worst in offensive rebounding percentage. They grabbed just four, and because of that the league’s worst team at scoring second-chance points — only 8.8 per game — went 3½ quarters without scoring a point in a second-chance opportunity. Denver, meanwhile, grabbed six more offensive rebounds and scored 17 more second-chance points.

And the Clippers’ 74.8% free-throw shooting, this season’s fifth-worst mark? They made just 11 of their 22 chances.

If this season has resembled a copy of last season’s injury riddled campaign, there is one notable difference. With the understanding that Leonard and George’s injuries would sideline them for weeks, or months, Lue reoriented his offense to fit his available personnel. The obvious good news from the Clippers’ perspective this season is that their stars are not expected to be out for entire chunks of the schedule.

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For Lue, however, their looming returns have not made it worth it to wholesale change an attack that was built in the preseason around the All-Stars’ isolation strengths.

“We’re not there yet,” Lue said of switching elements of the offense. “And so I feel pretty good about the situation right now and how guys are progressing.”

Lue added that he had confidence in the “great leadership in the locker room, and, our coaching staff has great leaders as well, but sometimes it’s just, it is tough to win games when you build your offense around two key guys and they’re out. Sometimes it’s gonna be tough to score, and so we understand that and so we just try to generate as many easy baskets as we can.”

At times Friday night, those baskets came easily. But with this many errors around the margins, victories won’t.

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