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Kawhi Leonard’s late decision seals Clippers’ loss to Nets

There was a reason why, even after beating the owner of the NBA’s best record on Friday, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue spoke with caution Sunday afternoon before his team started against the Brooklyn Nets.

Playing at full strength for the first time in nearly a month, the Clippers’ raw potential came into focus during the win against Utah, a game that gave them « good confidence, » Lue said. And yet, he added, « we still have a long way to go offensively and defensively. »

It was never more apparent Sunday inside the Staples Center.

Every chance the Clippers gave themselves to claim a second straight win was undermined by mistakes that doomed their chance to rebound from a 15-point deficit in a 112-108 loss to the Nets, even with Kevin Durant watching from the sideline because of to an injured hamstring.

The Clippers scored four more triples, grabbed 12 more rebounds and matched Brooklyn’s firepower of 37 points from James Harden and 28 from Kyrie Irving with 34 points from Paul George and 29 from Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard trailed by two with the ball and 11 seconds to go, and went into the paint for what would have been a tying basket, but was called for an offensive foul when he made the layup. It was a dubious whistle given Harden’s location in the key, but appropriate for a night the Clippers gave away chances. Seventeen turnovers for the Clippers turned into 27 points for the Nets, who won their sixth straight game partly with just six turnovers.

Leonard wanted his foul challenged, but the Clippers had already burned his review earlier in the quarter. He was not on the court for final possession, nor in any of the last 2 minutes 50 seconds, George, who hit his minute restriction in his second game back from a toe injury. George embodied the contrast between brilliance and mistakes that defined loss. He scored 12 points in the fourth quarter to bring the Clippers back into the game, but was also responsible for six turnovers in his 33 minutes.

The Clippers lost for only the second time in their last seven games.

Brooklyn (20-12) held a double-digit lead that grew to 15 points for nearly six minutes early in the fourth quarter until the Clippers finally gained traction on George’s 3-pointer with 7:19 left that cut their deficit to eight. points. After a stoppage, George dribbled his way through the paint before his sixth assist found Ivica Zubac for a dunk that led to an immediate Nets timeout.

As he did in the final five minutes of Friday’s victory against Utah to neutralize the ERA of center Rudy Gobert, Lue played a small lineup with Marcus Morris in center in the final three minutes; the decision was made just after seeing broken defensive coverage that allowed a dunk for Nets center DeAndre Jordan. However, going small has its risks, and one was confirmed when Jordan rebounded with 11 seconds left to give Brooklyn a 110-108 lead.

Leonard made four of his first five triples, double his record from the previous season in any first quarter this season, en route to 18 points in the first half. When he sat down after playing the first full quarter, the offense revolved around George, who made a couple of quick shots from mid-range and finished the first half with 13 points. The pair made 12 of their 23 combined shots before halftime, but help was scant, with their teammates making eight of their 23 shots.

The Clippers (22-10) showed some level of intensity. After Patrick Beverley fouled James Harden with an arm crossed across his chest to stop an easy breakaway opportunity, Harden pushed the Clippers guard, a former Houston teammate, and the pair had to be separated by Teammates.

But outside of Leonard’s initial offensive efficiency, the Clippers rarely showed the level of attention to detail required to win. Nine first-half turnovers, four by George, turned into 12 points for Brooklyn. Lue’s pregame goal of limiting easy opportunities for the Nets was further undermined by the series of points the Clippers allowed in cuts behind the baseline of their defense; Brooklyn took 20 shots at the rim before halftime.