The NBA season is not yet one week old, the pre-Halloween portion of the calendar when teams are still learning whether their early results reflect their true selves, or if they are just masquerading in a costume hiding their real form.
It’s the time of year for taking the long view, when a poor game can be described as just one of 82.
But the Clippers this season no longer have the luxury of knowing their talent level is superior to most in the Western Conference, not with Kawhi Leonard expected to miss a significant number of games, if not all, and center Serge Ibaka yet to test his injured back in a live game since June.
It’s why every opportunity until they are at full strength is precious in a rugged playoff race, and why even though the Clippers’ identity is months from being known, what is certain is that through two games they have misfired twice after allowing themselves a chance to turn a rally into a victory.
Two nights after rallying from a 19-point deficit before leading by eight points in the fourth quarter at Golden State, the Clippers lost their home opener Saturday at Staples Center to Memphis, 120-114, when their 13-point rally in the first half — and the 13-point lead it later created — was rendered moot by a second half that spoiled almost from the start.
Paul George scored 10 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter, only the sixth time in his career that he has produced at least 40 points and 10 rebounds, but the Grizzlies won with the balance the Clippers could not generate, and now L.A. is 0-2 for the first time since 2010.
“The emphasis needs to get back [defensively], especially against these fast teams,” George said. “I think we’re still getting out of preseason mode.”
Grizzlies guard Ja Morant scored 28 points, De’Anthony Melton had 22 and Jaren Jackson Jr. coolly knocked down the game’s biggest shot with 16 seconds left and Memphis leading by two. His three-pointer on the wing was made possible after a drive by Morant.
The Clippers made eight of their first nine shots, with George notably more aggressive in looking for his three-pointers and drives than against Golden State. They protected the ball: only seven turnovers for a second consecutive game.
George was finally awarded free throws 57 minutes into his season, and he finished six for six from the line. Eric Bledsoe, with 12 points, seven assists and six rebounds, was as good on defense — blocking a Morant dunk attempt from behind, stripping Grizzlies guards and turning them into points after two steals — as he was creative on offense.
But it would be unrealistic to expect that level of mistake-free play, and George’s output, all season. Winning will require establishing a “defensive presence,” guard Reggie Jackson said, a reminder this is a team still learning on the fly after its starting five did not play a single second together in four preseason games.
That presence was missing most in the third quarter during a seven-minute stretch in which Memphis outscored starter-heavy Clippers lineups 32-11 to lead by as many as 16 points.
“It’s a new year,” Jackson said, “but kind of that same lag, that same lull coming out.”
The bench unit of Isaiah Hartenstein, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann and Nicolas Batum, along with Jackson, closed the first quarter on a 10-0 run to lead 34-25 as the Clippers made six of their first 12 three-pointers. Hartenstein had seven points after catching an alley-oop lob from Batum over the zone of Memphis (2-0) in the second quarter and he finished with 11 points in 16 minutes.
That second unit was called upon to clean up another mess in the third quarter, after Morant’s soaring layup in transition provided Memphis its first lead 26 minutes into the game.
With the Clippers down 14, their four-man bench unit entered and, this time paired with George, scored 11 unanswered points in just 1 minute, 45 seconds.
Through two games, Marcus Morris’ inability to play in the preseason while regaining his health has been apparent. Morris has one rebound this season, and in the fourth quarters against both the Warriors and Grizzlies, he made one of his four three-pointers.
With the bulk of their rotation returning from last season, the Clippers are not one to lose sleep over an 0-2 start. Jackson, who scored 17 points in 17 shots, arrived for his postgame interview wearing a hat with a smiley face.
“I don’t think any positivity is lost in this locker room,” Jackson said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.