Kawhi Leonard scores 33 as Clippers hold off Bulls

Nicolas Batum scrolled through the evening’s boxing score on his cell phone and sat at his locker. His eyebrows seemed to raise with every shooting stat he read aloud.

The Clippers forward made two of his 10 shots at the United Center on Tuesday.

Luke Kennard, one of the NBA’s most consistent shooters, shot 0 for 6.

Reggie Jackson, the reserve, who has seen a rejuvenation over the past two weeks since losing her place in the rotation, was one of nine. And Terance Mann, so often the Clippers’ energizer, had made one of his six shots.

Unable to make an open three-pointer, the Clippers made 12 of their 44 total from deep. They couldn’t take the lead until the 28th minute. And once they had them they couldn’t defend them, an eight-point lead with six minutes left dwindling to one in the last minute.

“And we won,” said Batum.

There were two reasons this ended in a 108-103 win that gave the Clippers (29-25) six wins in their last seven games. Only one thing was surprising.

Norman Powell, the reserve guard who has averaged 13.2 points since Jan. 6 and scored 50% of his three-pointers, provided life again as the offense threatened to fall apart. His 15 points in the second quarter brought the Clippers back from as much as 19 behind, ending the deficit in just five minutes. He came to the line 10 times, made all 10, his ability to pull fouls remains unique in this squad. He finished at 27, beating the Bulls bench alone.

Powell was fouled on a drive to the rim with 10.8 seconds left and took a three-point lead with both free throws.

“Immediate offense,” said coach Tyronn Lue.

But it was the other reason that made this such an unusual sight. It was exactly what they’d been struggling to do over the last month: to play effective defense, the kind that kept the Bulls at 45 points after halftime and caused 20 turnovers, the last five-second streak from Zach LaVine’s Kawhi Leonard to play and the Clippers hang on a three-point line.

Clippers guard Paul George punches the ball away from Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan.

Clippers guard Paul George (right) punches the ball away from Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan during the first half Tuesday in Chicago.

(Erin Hooley/Associated Press)

“The reason we won is because our defense caught it and it carried us on a night like tonight,” said Paul George, who had 16 points in 40 minutes. “The luxury is that we have guys who can take shots and put the ball in the basket most nights.

“I think we found our rhythm with our defense and stayed in the game.”

Lue said: “We’ve gone small and I thought our little unit did a really good job of getting us back in the game. Defensively it got us back in the game, got out in the transition and got some easy ones and it kind of got us going.

That Clippers win wasn’t pretty.

And yet, in its own way, it was progress.

From December 23 to January 20, the Clippers ranked fourth-worst in halffield defense in the NBA, the same category in which they had been in the top five for most of the season up to that point. In the six games since then, they are 5-1 and 13th in average points per game allowed.

A large part of the recovery has been about finally having consistent lineups, with Leonard and George back to health, which in part has encouraged communication between defenders, Leonard and Powell said.

Coaches had noticed slippage in pick-and-roll defense and limited transition points. On Tuesday, they noted how they disrupted Chicago, which was uncharacteristic for a Clippers defense, whose 4.6 steals per game ranks No. 25.

“It was just that confidence factor and that we’re better,” Robert Covington said reluctantly.

“The most important thing was trusting the process and the game and trusting each other. Once we started doing that, we started to see the way we play and everything change.”

The defense has been “up and down, but we always have to get better,” said Leonard, who scored 33 points in 40 minutes that was a season-high, his 11th straight game in which he scored at least 24 points.

“I think tonight was a good win on the road, shooting 40% from the field and less than 30% from three. We have to get even better. We got off to a slow start and had a lot of catching up to do.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2023-01-31/los-angeles-clippers-chicago-bulls-nba-game-recap Kawhi Leonard scores 33 as Clippers hold off Bulls

Emma Bowman

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