Kawhi Leonard-Paul George pairing pays dividends for Clippers

When Nicolas Batum mentioned to Clippers team-mates last week that he believed they were about to embark on a five-game winning streak, his rationale for choosing such an accurate number was easy to deduce.

The sixth game in this stretch? It was supposed to land on Sunday, the very next night after Game #5. And, as anyone who’s watched the NBA this season knows, the Clippers were once again a leading example of the increasingly league-wide strategy of keeping contributors out of a night Back-to-back games, with pre-postseason recovery being more important than regular-season replays.

Sunday’s result was as predictable as Batum had envisioned: while in the second half several players normally played outside of coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation – and Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Reggie Jackson were sidelined as a precaution and Marcus Morris Sr. and John Wall were unavailable due to injuries — the Clippers trailed as much as 40 before ending their five-game winning streak with a 122-99 loss in Cleveland.

However, for a team that had begun to find its step during the phase that preceded Sunday’s “loss of plan,” the game marked a key schedule milestone: The Clippers are not scheduled to return to back-to-back games until March 2-3 play days.

It creates a 12-game window — Game 12 is the first night of that back-to-back set — in which, barring injuries, Leonard and George should be available to play every night while the Clippers look to make up ground in the Western Conference stand and construction chemistry.

All but one of those dozen games are against teams that started Monday with winning records — and potential playoff teams. While the Clippers are 19-9 against teams who lost records on the day they met, they are only 9-15 against opponents of .500 or better. Beating good teams was a missing element in the Clippers’ qualifiers and they know it because George said last week the team’s current six-game road trip would be a “good test” because of the caliber of their opponents.

Links on the road trip: Visits to 23-26 Chicago, 33-17 Milwaukee, 27-24 New York and 30-19 Brooklyn.

“We’re being tested against six playoff teams,” George said of the journey, which began with a 120-113 win in Atlanta on Saturday. “We simply have to accept the challenge.”

The roster that starts this 12-game stretch probably won’t look the same as the one that finishes it. The Clippers have each made one trade in the past five years before the deadline — Feb. 9 this season — and have been linked with point guards like Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley. With all the potentially moving parts, the Leonard-George pairing means the Clipppers appear better prepared for this challenge than at any point this season.

George averaged 24.4 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and more than one steal while shooting 55% overall and nearly 44% three-pointers during the winning streak. For his part, Leonard averaged 30 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and another steal while shooting 63%, 48% of which were three-pointers. Both were nominated for youngest player of the week.

During the streak that began Jan. 20 and continued through Saturday’s win in Atlanta, the Clippers outscored opponents by 46 points in George and Leonard’s 136 minutes while taking 59% of the field overall and nearly 48% with three scored points. Among 147 pairs of teammates who played at least 100 minutes together during that week-long period, the pairing of George and Leonard recorded the second-highest percentage of field goals — behind George and center Ivica Zubac at 60%.

The Clippers’ championship hopes this season were based on the team’s belief that George and Leonard could ultimately look as dominant together as they did in the 2021 postseason, when Leonard suffered a season-ending knee injury as each scored 30-point games and chokeholds -Defense against Utah. Through bouts and starts this season, this pairing has again resembled this vintage.

Lue first noticed that Leonard looked like his All-NBA self again during a win against Boston on Dec. 12, but it was a slow build-up as he began to trust his surgically repaired knee and some level of that team’s explosiveness showed officials were waiting, would come back.

After watching Leonard return on his own schedule from a quad injury in Toronto 2019 and gradually building his fitness and honing his efficiency over the course of that championship season, his former Raptors and current Clippers teammate Norman Powell said that Leonard’s progress nothing new for him.

“What’s special about Kawhi is that he’ll do his best for him, work on his game every day and play basketball properly,” Powell said last week. “I think that’s what frustrated people when he came back. He made the easy game. He wasn’t as aggressive until he got the feel of the game, the rhythm of the game and how he wanted to play. Now you can see his body and legs coming together like a mid-season shape coming into shape and forming.”

Powell added, “I think the media and fans have their own take on how someone should deal with their injuries and things like that. But we as players want to be out there, we want to play.

“We invest a lot of time in our game and Kawhi is the same. Kawhi is always trying to figure out how to get better. He wants to be out there and help this team win because that’s the most important thing.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2023-01-30/clippers-kawhi-leonard-paul-george-pairing-pays-dividends Kawhi Leonard-Paul George pairing pays dividends for Clippers

Emma Bowman

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