LOS ANGELES — Week 9 for the LA Clippers ended similarly to how Week 8 ended: completing a double-digit comeback victory over the Washington Wizards.
But while Week 8 marked the uneven return of the Clippers’ star players while the team was on a Southeast Division road trip, Week 9 was the beginning of the team’s longest homestand of the year. Even on the surface, it was a week that offered a variety of outcomes from Clippers games:
• The Clippers blew out the Boston Celtics on Monday 113-93, marking the only game this season that the Clippers outscored their opponent in each quarter.
• Wednesday, the Clippers overcame sub-30-percent shooting in the first half to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 99-88, allowing a season low in points.
• Thursday, the Clippers were without six rotation players (Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Ivica Zubac, Reggie Jackson, Norman Powell, Luke Kennard) for their eighth game in 13 days and ahead of a Saturday matinee, and the Phoenix Suns led by as many as 31 points in a 111-95 blowout.
• Saturday, the Clippers overcame a 15-point first-half deficit without George, Jackson or Zubac to beat the Wizards 102-93.
The Clippers are the first team to reach 32 games. The good thing about this stretch of success is that they have an 18-14 record. Only the Celtics, Milwaukee Bucks, Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers have more wins through Saturday night. But the schedule is also a reason why they had to protect their players to finish the week, most notably George (left knee soreness), Jackson (left Achilles inflammation) and Zubac (left knee contusion/bone bruise). It’s a headache for head coach Tyronn Lue, even if his team is winning more often than not.
“Let’s try 15 games together whole as a team,” Lue said after the loss to the Suns on Thursday. “Let’s see if we can do that … not two, not three. Fifteen!”
That may be hard to ask given the fact that the Clippers have only one stretch of games without a back-to-back that lasts at least 10 games: Jan. 31 to Feb. 28, a stretch interrupted by the All-Star break. But considering that the Clippers reached a nadir period with absence-related poor play two weeks ago on a matinee Saturday, things are in a much better spot, relatively speaking. And it starts with a player who has been able to string some (not all) games together:
Leonard continues to get to his spot
He’s a long shot to get Player of the Week, but Leonard continued his breakout that started Monday against the Celtics with strong two-way play in wins against the Timberwolves and Wizards. Against the Celtics, Leonard had the midrange game going as part of a 25-point, 10-of-12 shooting performance. The jumper wasn’t there against the Timberwolves (1-of-6 3s, 1-of-3 non-paint 2s), but Leonard got to the paint with success Wednesday night as part of a team-high scoring night, finishing with 19 points.
Leonard missed the Suns game, as he always does on zero nights’ rest. And in his first game without George since his ankle injury last month against the Jazz that cost him a couple of weeks, Leonard dominated the Wizards for a new season high of 31 points. Unlike Monday’s high-efficiency effort, Leonard had to beat the Wizards with volume, attempting 26 field goals. George is the only Clipper to surpass that many shot attempts in a game this season, and he did that only twice.
While Leonard’s teammates struggled in the paint against a Wizards interior defense led by Kristaps Porzingis, Leonard had increasing success there as the game went on, finishing with 18 paint points on 17 attempts. The only game with more paint points by a Clippers player this season is when Zubac went Hall of Fame on the Indiana Pacers last month.
“Shoot the ball, you should make more shots,” Leonard said Saturday. “PG was out, Reggie was out, Zu was out. So just needed to be more assertive and more aggressive throughout the whole game.”
Leonard’s ability to increase his production offensively continues a massive development for where the Clippers hope to be in four months. And the fact that Leonard could do it in a high-stress situation (afternoon game, short-handed, double-digit deficit) was something of a reciprocation given the predicament of his co-star.
George takes over playmaking, takes time to heal
Leonard has basically been the point guard for the Clippers leading into this week. That put George in position to be the primary meal ticket. When George hunts shots, the Clippers have succeeded. Monday against the Celtics, Leonard led the Clippers in assists (6) but not points. George was the scoring leader against the Celtics with a game-high 26 points on 8-of-22 shooting from the field.
The Clippers are 6-3 this season when George takes at least 20 shots in a game. That’s a 55-win pace over the course of a whole season, which is better than the 47-win pace that the Clippers are currently on. Monday was the second straight game that George surpassed the 20-shot barrier with Leonard; George hadn’t done it at all with Leonard prior to last Saturday at Washington.
Against the Timberwolves, George shifted to playmaker while Leonard took on a heavier shot-taking role. The Clippers were ice-cold offensively in the first half against the Timberwolves, but George had nine of his season-best 11 assists after halftime. George also had a season-high 11 rebounds to go with a quiet 17 points, enough for his first triple-double as a Clipper.
“It’s no huge significance to it, other than I just try to go out and play the game the right way,” George said of his first triple-double since February 2019 as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. “It’s just how I approach the game. Try to do whatever I can to impact. Tonight was just, was able to come through for the team.”
Injury rotation continues
Unfortunately for George, he wasn’t able to build on the strong effort and is now dealing with his second multi-game absence of the season. George is in his 13th season and has undergone surgery on his left knee before — in the 2018 offseason following his first year in Oklahoma City. There is no concern that he is dealing with a long-term absence, but it’s another step back for a Clippers team seeking some kind of week-to-week consistency.
Jackson missed consecutive games with the Clippers due to injury for the first time since joining the team in February 2020. Three days off before the Clippers host the Charlotte Hornets should help him as well, as he was able to work out on the court prior to the Wizards game.
Zubac is dealing with an injury that could cost him the start of the road trip, though he avoided a serious injury. It has allowed for the Clippers to get two-way contract centers Moses Brown (started against Suns) and rookie Moussa Diabaté (started against Wizards) on the floor.
The RICO was back
The two-man combo of Nicolas Batum and Robert Covington had a moment this week. On one hand, both veterans celebrated birthdays on Dec. 14, and Lue rolled them out together against the Timberwolves. In a game the Clippers won by 11 points, the Clippers outscored the Timberwolves 30-19 in the 12 minutes that Batum and Covington shared the floor.
The pairing wasn’t as successful against the Suns, as the Clippers were outscored 16-7 in six minutes with Batum and Covington on the floor. And Covington didn’t play against the Celtics or Wizards.
Still, Covington understands that Lue is trying different lineups and that Covington’s minutes are being sacrificed as a result. It’s an unfamiliar position for the 10-year veteran, but he is behind the program.
“Once we get in rhythm with everything and once T. (Lue) gets everything down that he’s trying, this team man,” Covington told The Athletic, letting his statement trail off with a nodding smile.
One of the lineups Lue tried Saturday against the Wizards: John Wall, Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr., Amir Coffey, Terance Mann. That unit turned a seven-point deficit when Leonard sat in the third quarter into a three-point fourth-quarter lead, highlighted by Boston’s pick-six/and-one of Monte Morris.
Defense turns up
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for the Clippers as far as winning goes is how well the defense has played. The Clippers struggled in the first half of the loss to the Suns without so many players, getting blitzed for 64 points on 54.2 percent shooting by a midrange-heavy team. The first half against the Wizards also was a struggle defensively, with the Wizards attacking the paint with success and scoring 57 points on 57.1 percent.
The Clippers turned it around on both nights after halftime, holding the Suns to 47 points on 38.3 percent field goals in the second half Thursday while holding the Wizards to 36 points on 28.6 percent shooting Saturday in the final two quarters.
This was after shutting down a 3-point-heavy Celtics team, and a paint-heavy Timberwolves team. The Clippers have turned a corner defensively.
“Scoring can be tough at times,” Lue said prior to the comeback against the Wizards. “But defensively, we got to be really good.”
(Photo of Kawhi Leonard scoring against the Wizards during the second half Saturday: Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)