Paul George, Terance Mann help Clippers fend off Suns
Long, sluggish strides carried Kevin Durant, the 13-time all-black All-Star, from one end of the Footprint Arena court to a chair on his middle Thursday. A personal highlight was played on a jumbotron overhead, and a midday crowd gathered to one side of the arena’s lower bowl howled at the sight of him.
Holding a microphone in his left hand, Durant attempted to utter his first public words as the Phoenix Sun since a trade last week ended Brooklyn’s superteam experiment. But an estimated viewership of 3,000, spiced up both by a t-shirt toss featuring the franchise’s gorilla mascot and the prospect of a long-awaited championship, didn’t let him go further, their chants of “KD, KD” forced the player to pause so many times impossible to stop.
He’s hoping to return from a knee injury soon after the All-Star break later this month, he said, and when he does, he and teammates Chris Paul and Devin Booker will be accompanied by the pressure he anticipates “to be one of the best players who have ever played this game.”
“I know how important a championship is to a franchise and a city,” Durant later said. “I’ve been involved in two of those and look forward to getting back on this path to try again.”
“It’s a heavy trio and it’s reminiscent of the Klay [Thompson]steph [Curry] and KD, although CP is a bit older now,” said Clippers coach Tyronn Lue, who played for Durant in the finals in Cleveland. “It’s a tough cover, it’s a tough matchup, just interested to see how they play, who they share the basketball with. But it looks really good on paper.”
And that’s where the Clippers come in — literally through the same tunnel that Durant exited hours later and ran away after a 116-107 win that left them 33-28 in fourth place in the Western Conference. They weren’t the most consistent team in the West like Denver. And they are no longer discussed as the most loaded, like Phoenix.
What’s undeniable is that, even on paper and despite months of disagreements, the Clippers could still look like a formidable postseason challenger should they lose backup center Mason Plumlee, Integrate Bones Hyland and guard Eric Gordon.
Despite playing without a substitute Norman Powell, whose aching right knee is unlikely to limit him when the team resumes on February 24, and even with imperfect play over long stretches on Thursday, when the Clippers’ lead of 4 minutes, 51 , reduced to five seconds from time, they responded and built the cushion to 11 in the final minutes to win and equal Boston on 18 away wins.
Lue walked into his post-game meeting clapping and exclaiming, “What a way to go on break!”
“We still have to get better,” said Kawhi Leonard. “I don’t think we’re playing at championship level anymore, but you know, we’re getting better and we have to keep getting better.”
Whether they can challenge the Suns, among others, depends heavily on the critical evaluation phase for the roster, which continued on Thursday and will continue through the rest of the month as Lue hopes to solve the season-long conundrum of who is best with whom plays . The starting line-up is not taboo. Whoever plays best will finish the games and sacrifices will be necessary, Lue said.
One factor in bridging the gap between the team they are and the potential of what could be is “to take on the challenge every night,” Paul George said. A translation of this is to sharpen their attack point defense and smooth the gap between their highs and lows. Punctures have allowed rides into the paint, messed up the Clippers’ defense and allowed for three-point looks. In the last month, opponents have blasted a league-high 42.2% on threes above the break and the third-most accurate mark from the corners, and Phoenix’s Josh Okogie continued to benefit with six threes.
The Clippers can’t shake moments of inattention either. Twice in the first half there were turnovers where the Clippers threw out-of-bounds passes straight at a Phoenix defender, who scored immediately. Her 10-point lead vanished; Three minutes before halftime, they had already surpassed their turnover total from Tuesday’s win against Golden State.
In two games with their three new rotation players, the Clippers were spurred on by more balanced rotations and no longer having to rely solely on “small ball” lineups when center Ivica Zubac – who scored 13 points and 12 rebounds and Terance Mann assisted backdoor dunk, who iced the win – pauses, due to the presence of Plumlee. But as commercial activity in the West has underscored, success depends on stars. Leonard missed all eight shots in the first half, the first time he had gone goalless in a half this season. He scored his first points after 24 minutes of his night on free throws – then scored 11 in his next five. He finished with 16 while George scored 10 of his 26 points in the final quarter.
As part of the Clippers’ ongoing roster evaluation, the Clippers have held discussions with buyout candidates such as Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley to determine if player and team goals align. For now, these check-ins appear to be more about diligence than immediacy, with the Clippers seen as patient before a move, if any, materializes. There remains skepticism that each guard available would be seen as an upgrade of the options already on the list. Lue has told Hyland not to turn off his scoring instincts to fit into a “traditional point guard” form.
“There’s a lot of ball-loving guys here,” Plumlee said. “I feel like every year someone does it unconventionally, so like teams do it without big things, teams do it without different things. I think Bones obviously showed a lot of playmaking. I think there are a lot of people who are ready to make the pass and it’s going to be good.”
Lue said he doesn’t think the team’s buyout discussions have resulted in current Clippers figuratively looking over their shoulders. Meanwhile, every West contender awaits Durant’s debut on the court, this time in uniform.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2023-02-16/los-angeles-clippers-phoenix-suns-nba-game-recap Paul George, Terance Mann help Clippers fend off Suns