It was late December when Paul George, the Clippers’ star wing, performed the autopsy on an inflated 20-point lead in the quiet of an empty locker room in Philadelphia.
The Clippers had played perhaps their best first half of the season. Then their shot selection went haywire, their defense struggled to rein in the 76ers’ stars, and a clear win turned to a charge loss as George bemoaned his inability to be “a team that will just take you down.”
A month later, George and the Clippers had played what might be their best first half of the season, amassing 77 points and 15 three-pointers and a 23-point lead. But with 6 minutes and 46 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, they assembled in a howling Crypto.com arena. Their lead had dwindled to 10, their blistering shooting had cooled and they were struggling to rein in the Lakers superstar in the quarter as LeBron James scored 15 of his 46 points with a dunk and three-pointer.
“We got into the scrum, we said we’re still 10 points ahead, this team isn’t going to give up and we wanted to come out and still push the pace and get those stops,” said Clippers wing Kawhi Leonard.
In doing so, they halted the Lakers’ comeback with a 133-115 win that marked their 10th winth Straight wins against the Lakers under coach Tyronn Lue, earned their third straight win overall and moved one step closer to realizing the top-end potential that, like so much else, has been fickle for so long.
“I thought we did that in San Antonio, we did that in Dallas and tonight, I thought we showed, I think we took the step of getting up late no matter how the game goes,” George said after his 27th goal, points with nine rebounds and made three of his five shots in the fourth quarter. “It could be a close game but on the stretch and fourth I thought we put the lead and put the lead and took the game away.
“So this is growth for us. This is a step in the right direction. I think it’s easy for us now, if we can stay healthy, we’ll build something good here. We just have to stay healthy.”
It hadn’t escaped the Clippers (26-24) that they fended off the Lakers by turning areas where they had struggled into strengths. A defense that had dropped to the fourth-worst in the league since the Dec. 23 loss in Philadelphia received four stops over the critical 1 minutes and 39 seconds after the Lakers drew within 10. During the time-out, they switched to a “drop”. “Reporting James at pick-and-rolls to get Kawhi Leonard guarding James instead of switching defenders,” Lue said.
And when the Clippers needed a big shot, they got one from Reggie Jackson, the embattled point guard who has gone from rotation to the middle of Tuesday’s celebrations in recent weeks.
When Lakers guard Russell Westbrook threw an out-of-bounds pass well past the Lakers backcourt, George chased him down, falling to the ground and forcing a quick pass from Dennis Schröder, which was intercepted by Leonard for a layup and a foul . The lead was 13.
The stretch wasn’t without moments with sliding doors that would have allowed the Lakers to get back into the game. On the next possession, a Clippers switch briefly lost contact with both Leonard and Jackson, but his three-pointer missed firing and George pulled in the rebound to end possession – something the Clippers struggled with plenty of consistency had.
Then George and the ball fell out on the following possession. But when the Clippers kept the ball, George threw a crisp cross-court pass to assist Jackson for a three-pointer. The lead was 16.
And finally, after Westbrook lost his dribble for another turnover, Leonard grabbed the loose ball and passed Schröder for a dunk that forced Lakers coach Darvin Ham to empty his bench and concede a loss with five minutes left. The lead was 18. At the end of the Clippers win, Lue was laughing with a fan seated near the team bench — boxer Floyd Mayweather, who is no stranger to landing KO punches.
“We have a long way to go because [George] at that point and what we want to run when teams get up and pressure us how we want to deal with it but defensively, offensively, score 133 points, score the basketball, PG in a rhythm, kawhi in a rhythm and stuff like that imagine for the season,” said Lue. “And so we’re not there yet. We still have a long way to go, but I love our process.
“I love the guys that work with our practices that we have and you know, just trying to stick with the program until we get where we want to be. But for now I think we’re doing a good job trending up.”
The lineup on the ground during the 1:39 turning of the game consisted of Leonard, George and reserve Norman Powell, the trio that the front office envisioned could thrive together if they traded for Powell, and Forward Robert Covington 11 months ago. Injuries have limited their time as a group, but on Tuesday the Powell-Leonard-George trio collectively beat the Lakers by 10 in nearly 11 minutes. Leonard had 25 points and Powell added 22 from the bench.
During their three-game winning streak, the three wings have scored 61% of their field goals, 53% of their three-pointers, and 97% of their free throws.
“Both draw so much attention from defense that they’re just used as outlets and end up on the other end of the floor,” Powell said.
Jackson was a surprise member of the lineup that ended the win, having lost his starting job almost three weeks earlier and only recently getting his minutes steady again because a stomach injury eliminated substitute John Wall. The abrupt change of roles “distressed him a bit,” said George, one of Jackson’s close friends.
Jackson’s three-pointer on George’s assist got him 19 points in 26 minutes — his most points since Dec. 27 and minutes since Jan. 2 — and as the Lakers called their timeout 5:07 after Clippers’ 8-0 run left, teammate Terance Mann butted in the chest with Jackson and bent just inches from the point guard’s goggle-covered eyes.
Lue credited Jackson’s ball handling with doing a “great job dealing with the pressure” from the Lakers guards. Jackson had two turnovers but five assists, and the Clippers beat the Lakers by 11 points in his minutes.
“I think he’s finding his niche, he’s finding his path, he’s figuring out how to play, he’s found his rhythm,” George said. “And I think for him he just enjoys playing ball again. For example he’s enjoying the game and it shows and he shows that courage and energy that he was great with. I’m happy that he had a great game.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2023-01-25/clippers-turn-struggles-into-strengths-lakers-paul-george-kawhi-leonard Clippers turn struggles into strengths in win over Lakers