New-look Clippers show potential dominance in win over Spurs

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Andrew Greif
·5 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers' Paul George (13) loses the ball as he is fouled by San Antonio Spurs' Derrick White during the second half of an NBA basketball game on Thursday, March 25, 2021, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
Clippers' Paul George loses the ball as he is fouled by San Antonio Spurs' Derrick White during the second half on Thursday in San Antonio. (Darren Abate / Associated Press)

Five minutes into the first quarter, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue glanced down his bench in San Antonio, preparing to make his first substitution.

For the first time in four years, the NBA’s all-time top-scoring reserve was no longer on the roster, waiting to pull off his warmups, dribble to the left and shoot the fadeaway that has helped him reach 15,000 points. The absence Thursday, Lue said, was definitely odd.

“We talked about it at halftime,” Lue said. “I said, ‘We need Lou Will right now.’”

Three-and-a-half-seasons and two Sixth Man awards after he arrived in a trade from Houston, Lou Williams’ Clippers tenure ended with a trade to Atlanta just before Thursday’s deadline, hours before a gritty 98-85 win that marked the team’s fourth consecutive. Clippers President Lawrence Frank lauded Williams as “arguably the greatest sixth man to ever play the game, and he represented much more than that as a Clipper” — but instead of his scoring punch, the Clippers felt their championship pursuit required a pure point guard’s direction.

It’s unclear when Rajon Rondo will make his Clippers debut and Lue didn’t know whether he would start or play off the bench until the team is healthier, but his immediate impact isn’t really the point of why the team decided to acquire the 35-year-old two-time champion at the cost of Williams, two second-round picks and cash.

This was a move done out of belief that his experience and tendency to play better in the playoffs will best serve them when the postseason arrives in late May, even though Rondo this season had produced a career-worst start with the Hawks.

Frank called him “one of the most skilled orchestrators of his era.” Lue called him as smart a player as he has been around, rivaling the intelligence of LeBron James and Chris Paul.

“When he gets to the playoffs he’s a different player and we all know that,” Lue said. “We’ve seen it over the years.”

Lue has seen it firsthand. Along with assistant Sam Cassell, Lue was “the Rondo coach whisperer” during four seasons as an assistant in Boston when Rondo was the Celtics’ point guard, former Clippers and Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Thursday, before his 76ers faced the Lakers. “And so they had a hell of a relationship.”

Trading Williams left Lue feeling “bitter.” But he likened Rondo to that of a little brother.

“He’s fiery, that’s what we need, he’s tough,” Lue said. “He understands the game.”

Rondo’s addition, and the promise of the Clippers’ potential, figures to be a moot point if they cannot stay healthy.

Kawhi Leonard missed the game with soreness in his right foot and Marcus Morris sat because of a right-calf contusion. The longer-term question is the status of Patrick Beverley (right knee) and Serge Ibaka (lower back), who remain in Los Angeles recovering after missing more than 10 days each because of their injuries.

Because of those absences, the Clippers (30-16) played without four starters against San Antonio (22-20), used only eight players and shot 38% — and won by double digits for the second straight night in San Antonio, anyway. It was their second victory this season when playing without four starters.

After grabbing a season-high 57 rebounds, they are now 8-0 on the second night of a back-to-back. Paul George scored 24 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

One of those interim starters, point guard Reggie Jackson, scored a game-high 28 points and made a high-arching three-pointer with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to push the team’s lead to eight. Then another former reserve, center Ivica Zubac, recovered a near-turnover by George and battled for a shot attempt that ended in free throws and a 10-point lead with 1 minute, 43 seconds left.

During the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter, the Clippers outscored San Antonio 16-6.

The victory in hand, guard Terance Mann pulled a Rondo rookie card with well-worn edges from his wallet. A friend gave it to him in middle school on the very day he made the top squad on his travel team. It seemed like a premonition. When he only got better at basketball after that, he considered it his “good lucky charm.”

“Got to get him to autograph it,” Mann said.

Now it remains to be seen whether Rondo will lead the Clippers to a charmed postseason.

Three takeaways

  1. After shooting seven free throws in the first quarter, the Clippers didn’t attempt another until Terance Mann’s pair of attempts midway through the third quarter — 18 minutes of game action later.

  2. The Clippers didn’t consider trading young center Ivica Zubac, with his performance against the Spurs another reason why they didn’t. He recorded four blocks in the third quarter alone and finished with five blocks, 10 points and 13 rebounds.

  3. Mann’s biggest contributions offensively have often been the result of his slashing ability. He had made 72% of his shots within three feet entering Thursday but was just two of five at the rim against the Spurs.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.