Meeting with the media two hours before tipoff Wednesday night, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said it would not be a letdown if his team lost to New Orleans. After all, this is the NBA.
“You can lose to anyone at any time,” he said.
Los Angeles was unable to overcame a lackluster defensive effort and an early 17-point deficit, falling 117-106 in its first game at Crypto.com Arena since Jan. 23.
The Clippers dropped to 34-16, half a game behind Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Denver at the top of the Western Conference.
New Orleans (30-21) has won 10 of its last 12 against the Clippers.
CJ McCollum had 25 points and seven rebounds for the Pelicans. Zion Williamson, listed as questionable with a left foot bone contusion, played 35 minutes and added 21 points and 10 assists.
James Harden led the Clippers with 19 points, Kawhi Leonard scored 15 and Norman Powell had 18 off the bench. Harden recorded his 7,393rd career assist in the first quarter, surpassing Maurice Cheeks for 15th place on the NBA’s all-time list.
“It was two good teams,” Lue said. “We didn’t play well tonight, they did so credit to them. Willie [Green, Pelicans coach] had a good game plan putting Herbert [Jones] on James and double-teaming Kawhi.”
New Orleans opened on an 11-2 run in the first three minutes, leading Lue to call his first timeout to settle his team down. Harden promptly drilled back to-back three-pointers, Leonard added another and Harden sank a jumper from 13 feet to tie it 13-13 midway through the quarter. The Pelicans answered with a 23-6 run to take a 36-19 lead after one.
Amir Coffey lobbed to Russell Westbrook for an alley-oop dunk to pull the Clippers within eight early in the second quarter. New Orleans built its lead back up to 15 before L.A. closed the half with a 13-6 spurt, capped by Coffey’s three-pointer with six seconds left.
Trailing 79-69 entering the fourth quarter, the Clippers crept to within four points twice but could get no closer.
“It’s not a letdown if you lose,” Lue reiterated. “We had 18 turnovers for 24 points. You’re coming off a 13-day road trip, get in late and have to play the next day, but hey no excuses. We have to come out ready on Saturday.”
The Clippers were happy to be home despite their most successful Grammys trip ever in which they won six of seven, matching a trip in November of 2014 when they went 6-1.
What will Lue remember most about the trip?
“That it’s over,” he said, before elaborating. “Being able to win in different ways and against elite teams. We can win pretty, win ugly and everything in between.”
Harden echoed his coach: “The road trip was good in that we found different ways of winning. It’s always difficult the first game back after a trip like that. Tonight was tough.”
On Tuesday, the Clippers became the first team in NBA history to start a season 3-7 and ascend to the No. 1 seed in their conference. They failed to grab sole possession of the top spot Wednesday and instead suffered their fifth loss at home, where they are 20-5. Denver holds the best home record in the conference at 21-4.
“The No. 1 seed is great but we want to be there at the end of the season,” Lue said. “There’ll be a lot of jockeying back and forth between now and then.”
Forward Moussa Diabate sat out with a metacarpal fracture in his right hand while center Ivica Zubac, who missed the last game of the trip to rest an injury, played 21 minutes and contributed 12 points.
“It was a tough game after a trip to the East Coast, getting in late and playing a team that’ll challenge you — and they did,” said Paul George, who had seven points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes. “I didn’t think I was in rhythm all night and it showed. Not a great game but there’s a reason there’s 82 of them. We have a great locker room. Saturday should be different.”
The Clippers are still atop the Pacific Division and host Detroit on Saturday afternoon.