Clippers' loss to 76ers puts more stress on their home playoff plans

Philadelphia 76ers guard Buddy Hield (17) drives past Los Angeles Clippers guard James Harden.

The Clippers head into Monday’s tip-off with the Indiana Pacers clinging to the home-court advantage for the first round of the NBA playoffs next month.

Although in their case, it may not be much of an advantage.

The Clippers have won as many times on the road as they have at home, where Sunday’s 121-107 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers ran their losing streak at Arena to a season-worst four games. That’s not exactly peaking for the playoffs.

Read more: Clippers get good news on Russell Westbrook before win over Portland

“Maybe we need to start on the road,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.

Come to think of it, even the road hasn’t exactly been kind to the Clippers. Their 14 losses there are second-most among the Western Conference’s top six teams, and overall they’ve gone 5-5 in their last 10 games, regardless of location.

And the reasons why — poor execution, bad habits, inconsistency — are frustratingly familiar. Especially against a team playing without the reigning MVP in Joel Embiid and former Clipper Nico Batum.

“We talk about it every day,” Lue said. “Not taking shortcuts and doing it the right way. And so I think they're frustrated as well. I mean, it's embarrassing. When you come in minus Joel Embiid, Nico sits out tonight and you’re playing at home, you have to take advantage of those type of things.”

“You keep talking about it,” he added. “But at some point, you’ve got to do it.”

That didn’t happen Sunday when the Clippers gave up 17 points off turnovers and never led. And with just a dozen games left in the regular season, they have precious little time to work things out.

“I just wish I had an answer. We’d be doing it,” Kawhi Leonard, who matched Norman Powell with a team-high 20 points, said when asked for solutions. “It’s basketball. You're fighting against another team. We’ve got to come in more focused and then see what happens. More focus and playing harder.”

Instead, he and his teammates started Sunday’s matinee game as if they’d overslept their wake-up call, watching Tobias Harris score the game’s first seven points, helping the Sixers run out to a 17-point second-quarter lead.

With Leonard scoring the final six points of the first half, the Clippers cut the margin to seven by the intermission, then started the second half with a trio of three-pointers by Paul George that tied the game three times, the final at 73.

They never got over the hump, though, with Tyrese Maxey sparking a 15-2 Philadelphia run to open the fourth period, putting the game away.

“We have a veteran group of guys. So we'll get there,” George said. “We’ve just got to lock in and focus. I don't think our focus has been where it needs to be on certain occasions, so we’ve just got to lock in as a group.”

Yet when asked why that focus has all of a sudden turned fuzzy, George, like Leonard, couldn’t say.

“I don't know the answer to that. Our focus would be there if we could pinpoint that.” he said. “It just comes down to everybody being dialed in.”

The Clippers did get some good news with the return of Powell, the team’s valuable sixth man, from a left-leg contusion. He played 25 minutes. And Russell Westbrook, who has missed the last 12 games with a fracture in his left hand, is expected back soon, perhaps in time for Monday’s game. That leaves the Clippers as healthy as they’ve been in weeks.

Clippers guard James Harden, left, and forward Paul George talk with a referee.
Clippers guard James Harden, left, and forward Paul George talk with a referee during a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

George finished with 18 points Sunday while James Harden had 12 points and 14 assists but was 0 for 6 from behind the arc in his first game against the Sixers since forcing the seven-player trade that sent him from Philadelphia to the Clippers in November.

Harden did not speak to the media after the game, but Harris, who matched Maxey with a game-high 24 points, did.

"It's good to see him in L.A. flourishing and playing his game, just balling out. It's all love and respect,” he said. “He's a Hall of Fame player. To see him on the other side happy and enjoying what he's doing, that's really what the game is all about."

Harden is likely to get a cooler welcome when he returns to Philadelphia on Wednesday, when the Clippers open their final multi-game trip of the season still searching for answers.

“We can't fall victim of being tired or what the schedule is. We know we’ve got to play better basketball going into the playoffs or it’s going to be an early season,” Lue said. “I’ve still got full confidence in this team. And full confidence in what we can do.

“It’s just going out and doing it every single night, not every two minutes, not 26 minutes. Forty-eight minutes of doing the right things, doing the right coverages, getting back in transition. We’ve just got to be better.”

Sign up for the L.A. Times SoCal high school sports newsletter to get scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.