Paul George injured late as Clippers fall short against Thunder

Andrew Greif, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

Four years ago, in the afterglow of one of the most transformative nights in Clippers franchise history, there were some within the organization who found themselves as excited by the additions of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard as they were mournful over the cost.

There was no way the Clippers could have pulled off a trade with Oklahoma City that netted George and, in turn, Leonard's free-agency commitment without including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Everyone understood it was the cost of doing franchise-altering business. The haul vaulted the Clippers into instant championship contenders. Losing the 6-foot-6 all-rookie point guard with the can't-be-bothered pace and preternatural cool stung a little, anyway.

"He's not going to let you dictate which shot he's going to take," Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of Gilgeous-Alexander, the league's leader in drives, before Tuesday's 101-100 loss to the Thunder. "And that's what's really good and nice about him."

The belief was Gilgeous-Alexander flashed All-Star potential. Four seasons later he realized it, making his first appearance in February, and in the process has pulled the Thunder out of their rebuild phase and into playoff contention. Suddenly, games in late March matter again for Oklahoma City — games like Tuesday at Arena.

The stakes were significant. So was the concern after George left the game with 4:38 remaining in the fourth quarter, his right leg appearing to buckle. He stayed on the court for several minutes as teammates and staffers surrounded him and was helped off the floor with the aid of two team employees who helped him keep weight off his leg.

Without George, the Clippers (38-35) lost a close contest, Leonard getting a chance to win it on the final possession but failing to get past Thunder defensive stopper Lu Dort. Leonard finished with 21 points, George 18 and Gilgeous-Alexander a game-high 31.

When the Clippers, with their championship aspirations, lost twice to the Thunder in October it was a shock. But Oklahoma City has remained in the thick of the Western Conference's knotted standings ever since — just as the Clippers have been unable to separate themselves. With less than three weeks remaining in the regular-season schedule, the Clippers came into the game fifth in the West, but only 2 1/2 games ahead of ninth-place Oklahoma City.

The Clippers' start indicated they understood. A team that often has found itself playing from behind while adjusting to three new rotation players seized control through sheer force. Within four minutes, Gilgeous-Alexander's dribble had been ripped away three times by the men on the other side of the trade, George and Leonard, the last turnover leading to a thunderous dunk by Russell Westbrook, who a decade ago originated the role of All-Star Thunder point guard.


The burst of defensive energy provided an 18-4 lead. But then it disappeared, as the Clippers missed 11 consecutive field goals and Oklahoma City answered with its own 18-4 run aided by defensive and offensive miscommunications by the Clippers.

By halftime, the Clippers were down by five points and one rotation player.

Amid a brutal shooting display — in which Clippers starters failed to make a three-pointer in the first half, Leonard and George combined to make five of 16 shots and the entire roster missed eight of 15 free throws before halftime — the Clippers also suffered the costly absence of Terance Mann. The backup guard was ejected 4:24 before the half by official Curtis Blair after a pair of rapid-fire technical fouls. Mann had been upset that a Leonard drive and score had not earned a foul call, but the technicals were issued in such quick succession that his teammates were left wide-eyed as Mann headed toward the tunnel and the locker room, his night done after eight points in 11 minutes.

Gilgeous-Alexander's league-leading 1,451 drives this season had generated a league-high 338 free-throw attempts, and after his early drives had gone nowhere against the aggressive defense of Leonard and George, he began to solve their defensive puzzles with 12 points in the third quarter — including five baskets inside the paint.

But George reminded, again, why he had been so prized four years ago — cutting into the paint in the third quarter while receiving a pass and unleashing a 360-degree dunk, the kind usually reserved for fastbreaks. The highlight, which helped the Clippers lead by one entering the fourth quarter, quickly was superseded by worries produced by George's departure.


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