Clippers still seeking right roster combination as they fall to Timberwolves

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Mike Conley, right, drives against Clippers forward Paul George (13) during the first half on Tuesday at Arena. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

With their steady stream of injuries, the nights off for rest and their consistently inconsistent lineups, the Clippers’ last five months were spent playing wait-and-see.

Yet five weeks before the postseason begins, a deadline is approaching for coach Tyronn Lue to decide the players he will rely on during the playoff push and, as a result, for the Clippers to decide who they will be.

By this time next week, the Clippers are expected to look different than they did in Tuesday’s 108-101 loss against Minnesota at Arena. A self-imposed milestone looms, with Lue acknowledging before tipoff that he plans to mix-and-match lineups for two to three more games before making hard decisions on which players remain in his regular rotation.

“It’s not fair to our new guys that we don’t try all the different combinations just to make sure that we’re doing the right thing going into the playoffs,” Lue said. “’Cause I think all of those guys could help us.”

Lue could exhaust all potential combinations up until the regular-season finale, if he wanted. And settling on a rotation in March won’t preclude him from changes during April’s playoffs; Lue coaches by feel, and Minnesota coach Chris Finch called the Clippers’ ability to theoretically plug in an out-of-rotation veteran as a postseason adjustment a unique advantage.

But just as Lue believes he owes it to his players to test what works and what doesn’t, it’s also his responsibility — with the Clippers back to full health Tuesday after center Ivica Zubac returned from a two-game absence because of a knee strain — to create continuity. Their championship aspirations hinge on Lue finding the right combinations.

Despite Denver’s earned status as the conference’s most consistent threat, the Clippers regard the West as “open,” backup guard Eric Gordon said. “We definitely do feel that we have the deepest team but … the chemistry has to be there.

“We do have good guys on this team and I think when the chemistry is there it’s almost like sky’s the limit with this team.”

Their depth is a power — but a fine line separates it from being a pitfall too. Being one of the NBA’s most experienced rosters should allow its new pieces, from backup center Mason Plumlee to starting guard Russell Westbrook and Gordon, to adapt quickly to the offensive and defensive schemes and new teammates. But with so many veterans, some will inevitably receive smaller roles than expected.

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook brings the ball up against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook brings the ball up against the Minnesota Timberwolves during the second half on Tuesday at Arena. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

If Westbrook, who has received praise for his controlled play within the guardrails the team has asked of him, remains a starter, then the future usage of reserve guards Gordon, Norman Powell and Terance Mann figures to be one of the looming decisions. How much Lue leans late on Marcus Morris Sr., a mainstay of his starting lineup who has struggled in recent games, versus Nicolas Batum could be another.

“I bet you it is tough for a coach because … it’s just not young guys, you got veterans that have proven themselves throughout their career,” Gordon said. “I think now it seems like it’s just we need to do things where we can be a better team, maybe it’s fitting in defensively, maybe it’s certain pinpoints on not just how good of a player he is — how can they really fit in that can make us win games?”

The roster’s wealth of experience and know-how have made some of their most persistent issues all the more glaring.

The energy ebbs and flows. The starters who fell behind by 18 in the first quarter against Denver, charged out to a 12-point lead Tuesday against the Timberwolves, sprinting to chase down outlet passes thrown by Westbrook, who raised his arms into a touchdown signal after one found Paul George for a fast-break dunk.

Then, however, that double-digit lead also evaporated as Minnesota built a lead that stretched to 13 in the fourth quarter.

The Clippers’ ball movement is also either sharp or creates wounds that are self-inflicted. Powell’s pass to a cutting Leonard for a dunk was his most impressive assist this season — yet in the same first half the Clippers finished with 12 turnovers, giving them a combined 49 in 10 previous quarters.

“It’s something I got to navigate through,” Lue said of his upcoming decision, “and it’s better to have more guys than not enough guys.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.