'Things do feel different.' Paul George powers revived Clippers to another win
Published in Basketball
LOS ANGELES — By the time the Los Angeles Clippers pulled into San Antonio last Thursday they had lost nine of their previous 11 games and, with each passing day, valuable time to steer themselves out of their skid.
The Clippers’ roster is loaded with players who are versatile, but not by nature vociferous. But as the losing continued, which included losses to Philadelphia and Utah on consecutive nights that dropped the preseason championship contender into the play-in tournament tier of the Western Conference standings, coach Tyronn Lue wanted one of the NBA’s oldest rosters to find answers among themselves. Guard Norman Powell, wing Paul George and forward Marcus Morris Sr. were the most vocal, said people familiar with the locker-room discussions.
“Guys were like, ‘OK, it’s getting ridiculous, we got to win some games,’” center Ivica Zubac said. “We were talking about that Utah game: We can go on a win streak. We just got to lock in, we got to stick to our plan.”
Despite a litany of defensive mistakes, the Clippers held off San Antonio last Friday. They started a win two days later behind what Lue called the team’s best defensive performance to date against Luka Doncic. By not allowing their double-digit lead against the Lakers to disappear Tuesday, even in the face of a career-best shooting night from LeBron James, they felt they’d showed a composure they had lacked.
On Thursday the Clippers closed the week that has, for now, revived their season by beating San Antonio again, 138-100, to improve to 27-24. As Kawhi Leonard scored 12 first-quarter points, and George 10 as the lead grew to 16 on Leonard’s buzzer-beating three-pointer, the team’s execution that had once looked scattershot turned methodical, and a once-disjointed roster appeared dangerous.
“Things, they feel different,” Lue said before tipoff. “We still got a long ways to go, like I keep saying, but things do feel different.
“When you win, it changes a lot of things, but we are getting better in certain areas, especially offensively. I think we’re turning the corner in that regard. And defensively just gotta play a full 48 (minutes).”
In the second quarter, George’s windmill dunk in transition was quickly clipped and published across social media within minutes, pushing the lead to 20 at halftime. They reached 100 points with three minutes still remaining in the third quarter in a victory that improved them to 18-2 when crossing the triple-digit barrier first.
Significant caveats apply: San Antonio’s defense is the NBA’s worst by a Texas-sized margin. And the Spurs, with only a 2-8 record when playing with less rest than their opponent, were playing on a second consecutive night.
But the Clippers cannot be picky after compiling a 23-24 record entering last week’s game in San Antonio. They needed wins, period, and Thursday brought two developments they gladly welcomed — their season’s first four-game winning streak, and the return of guard Luke Kennard.
Kennard last played Jan. 6 after a calf injury he’d first injured in November flared up again, and as the Clippers shook up which guards played and how often during his nine-game absence, Lue said the “plan” he had in mind for his preferred rotation wouldn’t be able to be put in place until Kennard returned.
Of course, this being a Clippers season riddled by injury, that plan still wasn’t able to be implemented despite Kennard’s return because the roster still is not whole. Backup guard John Wall missed his seventh consecutive game with an abdominal injury and starting forward Morris were sidelined by a bruised rib suffered Tuesday. Instead, Lue went with a different plan — starting Kennard in place of Morris for the season’s 19th starting lineup.
The move kept Reggie Jackson as a reserve. In his four previous games, Jackson — out of the rotation at the time of Kennard’s injury — had averaged nearly 20 minutes per night.
“The starting lineup (with) PG and Kawhi, they have the ball, we run our offense through those guys,” Lue said.
“I think with Reggie coming off the bench, he’s able to handle the basketball more, run more pick and rolls, be more of a scorer, with him and Norm (Powell) coming off the bench, and he’s done a great job with that.”
Even with the new wrinkle of Kennard’s start, Lue, midway through the first quarter, used what has recently become a familiar lineup featuring Powell as the lead guard surrounded by four wings, without a center. By removing Kennard for Powell, Lue opted against pairing up a pair of smaller guards, a lineup construction that the coach has acknowledged makes the Clippers’ life defensively more difficult.
©2023 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.