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    Pacers spoil Russell Westbrook’s return as Clippers’ home struggles continue
    • March 26, 2024

    LOS ANGELES — There has been a lot of talk lately about the Clippers’ identity. Are they winners, the team that reeled off a 26-5 run earlier this season and briefly sat atop the Western Conference standings?

    Or are they no better than a .500 team, having gone 7-7 during the month of March?

    Coach Tyronn Lue had a harsher description of what his team has become – soft.

    “That could be our identity, if you want to call it that,” Lue said after watching the Clippers put up a fight in the first three quarters then succumb to the Indiana Pacers, 133-116, on Monday night, their fifth consecutive loss on their home court.

    “We have to be tougher mentally and physically,” Lue continued. “We did have an identity when we were 26-5. We had a great identity, but you can’t pick and choose when you want to lead, you can’t pick and choose when you want to have an identity. You have to do things the right way.”

    The Clippers – who got 26 points each from All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in the loss – don’t seem to know what they want to be. They were close to securing home-court advantage during the playoffs, but now at 44-27, they have slipped to fifth behind the New Orleans Pelicans, who own the head-to-head tiebreaker.

    “I think we’re all trying to figure out what the (heck) is going on,” point guard James Harden said.

    Like Lue, Harden was at a loss to explain why the Clippers seem so lost this late in the season after a celebrated run through December and January that featured winning streaks of nine and five games.

    “If we could pinpoint it, put our finger on it, we would go out and do it,” Harden said. “It’s a combination of things.”

    Harden said regaining their identity as a team that can grind out victories and pile up wins is important, especially heading into the postseason.

    “When you have an identity as a team, you have something to rely on, something to fall back on,” he said.

    The Clippers showed a defensive effort against the Pacers that had been missing in recent weeks. But not even the return of Russell Westbrook could produce a victory once Indiana got rolling.

    The Pacers topped their season average of 12.31 points behind the scoring of Pascal Siakam, Myles Turner and Tyrese Haliburton as they shot 58.1% from the field and 60.7% from 3-point range. Siakam led Indiana with 31 points and four rebounds, while Turner added 24 points and seven rebounds and Haliburton had 21 points and nine assists.

    Lue had hoped Westbrook’s return would provide a needed spark for his team, which has won once in its past 10 games against teams with winning records.

    Westbrook checked into his first game in more than three weeks at the 5:24 mark of the first quarter, giving the Clippers the energy off the bench they had missed in his absence. He had six points in the first half.

    Westbrook had been sidelined since he broke his left hand on March 1 and had surgery three days later. He had been averaging 11.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 58 games.

    He finished with 14 points and seven assists in 18 minutes against the Pacers.

    “I think having that pace and having that energy on the floor is definitely infectious and we need that pop,” Lue said. “… having that pop, we could definitely use that.”

    The Westbrook effect only went so far. The Pacers, behind Haliburton’s long-range shooting, quickly quieted the Clippers in the first half, erasing a one-time eight-point lead to hold a 65-62 advantage at halftime.

    George got the Clippers moving early, leading them to a brief lead in the first quarter. He had 13 points in the opening half.

    The Pacers stretched their lead to 10 points, 78-68, in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Jarace Walker at the 8:24 mark and it looked as though the Pacers were poised to break open the game, but the Clippers hung in and pulled to within 86-83 with 2:58 left.

    After a tight third quarter, the Pacers slowly pushed their lead to 16 before settling for a 17-point victory, avenging a 151-127 Clippers victory in December on the strength of Harden’s 35 points, 27 of them coming off nine 3-pointers. This time, Harden was a non-factor, finishing with 11 points and seven assists.

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    Clippers guard Norman Powell had 22 points off the bench. Center Ivica Zubac pulled down 11 rebounds to go along with nine points.

    The Pacers – playing on the second night of a back-to-back set – shot 8 for 15 from 3-point range in the second half, while holding the Clippers to 1 for 9 from behind the arc in the final two quarters.

    “I think collectively we just got to come together during tough times,” Westbrook said. “Adversity, to me, is a real measure of who you are as a man and to who you are as a team. And I think now is a perfect time for us to be able to pull together, use what we know how to win games and use ourselves to help each other out to close games and win games.”

    Lue pointed to consistent effort as a solution.

    “The only way we’re gonna get out of it is playing hard for 48 minutes, doing things right every single night, every single possession,” Lue said. “Not two out of five, not two out of six. Every time, just do the right thing, and you’ll be able to get out of this rut.”

    ​ Orange County Register