The stands weren’t nearly full on Wednesday, the city’s attention focused more on the Astros’ hometown appearance at the World Series than on basketball in early November. The loudest cheer at the Toyota Center came from the scoreboard showing an Astros lead in Philadelphia between the third and fourth quarters.
The next loudest moment came two minutes later. John Wall, the point guard whose divorce from Houston last summer as part of a contract buyout paved his way to the Clippers in free agency, had a pass stolen in midfield when he thoughtfully dribbled to the three-point line and then in the color burst. He shuffled the ball in a full circle around his waist to avoid Rockets guard Daishen Nix’s reach, saw Kevin Porter Jr. waiting on the sidelines, and turned the ball behind his head to Moses Brown. Before Brown had time to extend his 7-foot-3 wingspan and dive in for a nine-point lead, the Clippers players had jumped from their seats on the sidelines at the game.
“We actually talked about his patented behind-the-back dribbling in the warm-ups,” said Paul George. “I’ve never seen anyone stop it, and in fact he pulled it out.”
Playing during the 109-101 win – the Clippers’ second straight win that took them to 4-4 – was a glimpse of the wall the Clippers hoped they would achieve following his July signing. It was also a moment few of his saw during his 18-month residency in Houston.
Wall had endured dark times early in his Washington career, beginning with a series of injuries and culminating in the death of his mother, with whom he was particularly close. But his 18 months in Houston wrote a particularly disheartening chapter, ending with an exile from the league he once dominated with his speed and vision.
Wall spent most of last season away from the Rockets after the player and team agreed the veteran didn’t fit into plans to rebuild around a young backcourt.
Teammates and coaches saw no change in Wall, who quickly left Houston’s arena without speaking to reporters ahead of Wednesday’s full circle moment. It was his first in Houston since April 23, 2021, which was also the last game he played before sitting out last season. The bigger impression Wall has made on them is the joy he’s shown since July when he got back into the league and had a nearly daily presence at the gym during practice when he was in Los Angeles.
“He studies and just watches the basketball game. So if you lose the game of basketball, something you love, for two years you’re really looking forward to coming back and he shows that by playing every night, his passion plays along,” said coach Tyronn Lue.
Wall scored six points with four assists and two steals in 15 minutes off the bench. As late as Sunday, he at times expressed frustration with the limited number of minutes the team allows him to play, but was aware of the intent to keep him healthy for a long season.
“He wants to be out longer and play longer, but at the same time he’s great at understanding the big picture,” said Paul George, who had a team-best 28 points. “There were several occasions when he wanted to be on this floor. We build it up. He will make it.”
If Wall’s return was highly anticipated, Moses Brown’s impact was equally unexpected. The former UCLA big man, who signed a two-way contract after being invited to training camp, had played a total of 12 minutes in four previous games this season. But starting center Ivica Zubac’s four fouls in the first half and the ineffectiveness of the team’s small lineup in the second quarter as the Clippers lost an 18-point lead prompted Lue to play with the starters against Brown in the third quarter to open.
Brown, once nowhere but on the bench, was suddenly everywhere, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds, including three offense. Lue gave up his small lineups during a third quarter the Clippers won by four points.
“He really won that game for us,” said Lue.
The Clippers won despite missing Kawhi Leonard and Robert Covington. Covington is on the league’s health and safety protocols while Leonard remains in California to manage the stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee. Nothing more was revealed by the Clippers about Leonard’s eventual return, except that Lue said the star was “moving in a positive direction. Lue previously said Leonard was frustrated at not being able to play; Wednesday marked his sixth absence in the first eight games of the season.
Houston coach Stephen Silas joked before the tip that he was less happy to see Wall ready to play on Wednesday than he was in the Clippers’ win over the Rockets two days earlier in Los Angeles when Wall was kept out of the second night of a back to back. The coach had visited Wall in Miami and Los Angeles during the 2021 off-season, and during the most recent meeting he said both sides discussed Wall’s role — particularly the lack of a role amid the franchise’s rebuilding to include a younger backfielder, including Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. Wall continued with the team through November of last season, with Wall training with longtime assistant John Lucas after practice until last Christmas, after which he became less of a presence.
Wall told The Athletic in October that he was “pissed as hell” for not playing last season, but said on Monday there was “no reason to hold a grudge.” It just sucked not being able to play but we needed to understand what was going on.”
There is a similarity between his time at Houston and Los Angeles, with coaches on both staffs praising his mentoring of young players. Wall stopped by Houston’s locker room to greet the Rockets’ younger players, whom he likened to brothers. One of those players, Porter Jr., even praised Wall for helping him through a rocky start to his career and teaching him to be a better ballhandler after signing a lucrative contract extension last month.
“He’s a super smart guy who can analyze pick and roll better than a lot of coaches,” Silas said.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2022-11-02/clippers-rockets-wednesday John Wall helps Clippers to back-to-back wins over Rockets