Column: Clippers are confident that lopsided losses won’t derail their progress

When the Clippers were at their worst and most disjointed early this season, when they couldn’t figure out how to ease new acquisition James Harden into their lineup and Harden was proclaiming he’s not a system player because he is a system unto himself, coach Tyronn Lue never (at least publicly) lost faith in his players’ ability to sort out strategy and personality, and eventually pull everything together.

They were going to be all right, Lue said more than once. They’d need time and patience, but they’d establish their rotations and roles and from that would come their identity. Sometimes, especially when they lost six straight games in early to mid-November, he seemed to be the only person who believed that.

But the Clippers proved him right, roaring into December with a nine-game winning streak that showcased how good they could be when they’re healthy, cohesive and unselfish. Those factors haven’t coincided often enough for the Clippers, making that stretch impressive by every measure.

Lue’s faith is being tested again after an ugly 145-108 loss to the three-point-happy Boston Celtics on Saturday at Crypto.com Arena sent the Clippers into their Christmas break with two straight defeats. They played both games without Kawhi Leonard, who has a bruised left hip, providing something of an excuse. But they also played transition defense without a clue Saturday, to the delight of a heavily pro-Celtics crowd.

A seven-point deficit after the first quarter ballooned to 17 at the half and 25 after three quarters before ending with a season-worst margin of defeat for the Clippers (17-12). Still, Lue insisted they will be fine. He was right about that once before. And he must be right again for that winning streak — and this season — to mean anything.

“We just got to be better,” Lue said afterward. “We will, and we’re not going to get discouraged by these last two games. We built a lot of good things, and so just come back on Tuesday and hopefully get back on the winning track.”

It’s difficult to ignore the Clippers have given up 274 points in their last two games, and the absence of Leonard alone doesn’t explain that. They did play three games in four nights, at Indiana, and back-to-back at Dallas and Oklahoma City, before returning home in the early morning hours of Friday to prepare for an afternoon game Saturday, and that’s tiring. But that’s also life in the NBA, and every team will face similar stretches during the season.

The deepest and most consistent teams survive. The Clippers, as formidable as they looked and as well as they played during the nine-game win streak, have yet to prove they belong among the league’s elite.

Center Ivica Zubac said it would be easy for the Clippers to move on from their 19-point loss to the Thunder on Thursday, which had been their largest margin of defeat until the Celtics (22-6) took over the game and the crowd Saturday. The game against Boston was bad from the jump, Zubac said, and it got away from the Clippers quickly after a decent start, but he said he doesn’t think it’s part of a worrisome trend.

“We came a long way, we can’t let these two games affect us. We’re a better team than this and that’s it,” Zubac said. “We get back the 26th against Charlotte, get back to what we do the best and that’s it. Stay confident.”

It would help if they can get healthy again too. Lue said he hoped Leonard would be available Tuesday. Before the game, Lue said Leonard’s status was day to day. That can mean anything.

Paul George, who scored a team-high 21 points in nearly 30 minutes Saturday, said he doesn’t expect the Clippers’ stumbles the last two games againstpremier teams will turn into a swoon that would negate the progress made during the winning streak. He, too, must be right.

“Yeah, we’re in a great spot,” George said. “We won nine leading up to the two losses.

“It’s the NBA. Every team is going to be a challenge. We played two of the better teams in the NBA. Doesn’t derail from where we’re headed and where we’re trying to get to.”

Lue and the coaching staff delivered a similar message to players before they left for the break. “These last two games, don’t let it discourage what we’ve built and what we’ve been doing over the last three, four weeks,” Lue said.

“And so we had two bad games. We’ve got a chance to be off for Christmas the next two days and then come back Tuesday ready to go, and so that’s got to be our mindset.”

Two straight losses shouldn’t break them. How they respond when they return to the court will go a long way toward determining whether Lue’s faith in them is justified.