LOS ANGELES — The main load that had to be managed at Staples Center on Wednesday was Giannis Antetokounmpo.
He played for the Milwaukee Bucks and Kawhi Leonard didn’t play for the Clippers. Despite that, the Bucks had to play deep into the final minute to win, 129-124, with Antetokoumpo blocking a 3-point attempt by JaMychal Green at the end, not long after he drove, pivoted, got fouled and hit both shots for a five-point lead.
Knowing his limitations, Antetokounmpo got rid of the ball quickly on the next trip, before he got fouled, and Khris Middleton put the Bucks up four with free throws.
The Clippers, fueled by Landry Shamet’s four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, kept coming but never had the ball with a chance to tie.
“They had us on our heels all night,” Lou Williams said, after his rare start produced 34 points on 9-for-27 shooting. “We kept coming, but they were able to keep making plays.”
Williams and Montrezl Harrell, the best bench combo in the league, both started and played more than 39 minutes. Harrell fought through long Milwaukee arms and scored a career-high 34 with 13 rebounds.
“We lost, and since we lost, you’d rather they’d gone up 25 so we could have gotten them (Williams and Harrell) out of there,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It’s just one of those coach’s things. I didn’t like those minutes.”
That’s because the Clippers play Portland here Thursday night. Leonard will join in after a night of “load management” in Game No. 8. Late in the game, the video board showed Leonard on the bench, in civilian garb. The reaction from Staples Center was not unanimously positive.
But Russell Westbrook did the same thing Monday night for Houston in the second half of a back-to-back, and this is 2019 reality. Leonard took 22 of 82 regular-season games off with Toronto last season and was the MVP of the NBA Finals.
It’s a withering critique of the regular season, although the Clippers might regret this loss to Milwaukee if the two teams have the same record and meet in the Finals, which would decide the home-court advantage, and that is certainly possible.
The problem for the Clippers is that they still don’t have Paul George (shoulder), for whom they traded Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a slew of draft picks. It was more of a test of the Clippers’ vaunted bench than it could handle. Milwaukee’s reserves outscored their Clipper counterparts 47-11, with George Hill making six of seven 3-point shots. The L.A. replacements shot 7 for 25.
Meanwhile, Antetokounmpo roared back from a 3-for-10 first half to score 38 with 16 rebounds, nine assists, two blocked shots, two steals and 18 free-throw attempts.
“It’s a team effort trying to guard him, because he’s so long,” Maurice Harkless said. “He’s gotten a lot more aggressive the last two years. He’s a lot stronger. He started making some open shots, which is a part of his game he works on.”
The Clippers, in fact, engraved an invitation for Antetokounmpo to take all the long bombs he wanted. He was 7 for 14, and 5 for 8 in the second half.
“I’m fine with that,” Rivers said.
“Obviously that’s the one thing that’s been missing with his game,” Harkless said. “When he takes that to a new level, there’s no telling how good he can be.”
Antetokounmpo, almost a month short of his 25th birthday, is the reigning league MVP and has evolved into a true break-the-mold force, a 7-footer who turns away the world at the rim and yet functions as a point guard. Especially on the break, his burst is so startling that the Clippers sometimes just fouled him as an insurance policy.
Harrell and the other Clippers backed off him, but Antetokounmpo drove anyway and then made plays for his outside mates while he was being double-teamed in the air. With all the space the Clippers were forced to concede, the Bucks had room to attempt 49 3-point shots and made 18 of them.
“There’s so many things that come with his size that you have to respect,” Williams said. “When he gets the ball deep, you don’t want to overhelp, and then he’s got a lot of talented players to get the ball to. It’s a difficult read.”
Shamet’s fourth-quarter spree, including a long bank shot from behind the line, was probably the biggest encouragement. The second-year man was shooting 37.2 percent coming in.
“As we continue to build this team and grow, we want to start seeing guys have big games like that,” Williams said.
Neither did Rivers have trouble finding sunshine.
“We made some mistakes, finding shooters,” Rivers said, “but generally I loved the way we played.”
That was last year’s theme, the gutty little Clippers fighting to the end. This season, the end isn’t supposed to be bitter.
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