Kawhi Leonard and Clippers get back on track in dominating win over Grizzlies

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Andrew Greif
·4 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives between Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives between Memphis Grizzlies guard Desmond Bane and center Xavier Tillman during the Clippers' win Friday. (Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

It was only a loss in late February, hardly carrying the high stakes of late spring. But as Tyronn Lue returned to his Memphis hotel Thursday night to prepare for a second game against the Grizzlies in as many days, he felt the faint pull of the postseason, when series are decided by moves and counters.

The Clippers had lost by 28 in FedEx Forum, dragged by a team six games behind in the standings. Their defense was shredded, their energy sagging, their offense choppy. Lue can stand losses. What he can’t stand are those like Thursday’s, when the focus was off from the start.

On Friday, the coach promised adjustments, a “playoff mentality,” and pushed the buttons of his veteran roster. And because of it, the Clippers left Memphis hours later on a better note, perhaps having laid a bit more of a foundation to lean on in the future.

For all the ways Memphis hurt the Clippers in the first matchup, the Grizzlies saw their same tactics blunted in a 119-99 Clippers victory Friday.

“That’s what T-Lue is great at, he’s great at making adjustments,” Clippers All-Star forward Paul George said. “He had a game plan to address what was causing them and allowing them to score easily. A lot of it was just us pressuring up, playing a little bit harder, and again, helping one another on the floor.”

The Grizzlies scored 18 fewer points in the paint, shot 25 percentage points worse from behind the three-point arc and, one night after running the Clippers off the floor late, couldn’t keep their composure. Star guard Ja Morant was ejected late in the fourth quarter after arguing for a foul.

Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers’ other All-Star, followed his least effective offensive performance in weeks with 30 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. George had 13 points and eight assists on a night Los Angeles dished a season-high 34 assists en route to 55% shooting.

The Clippers (24-11) forced one turnover in Thursday’s entire first half; they matched that total on Memphis’ first possession a night later. They scored 24 total points in the paint Thursday. They surpassed that only 15 minutes into the rematch. At 6-0, the Clippers are the only team this season that has yet to lose on the second night of a back-to-back.

The change Lue wanted most Friday was more defensive pressure at all five positions. Memphis no longer could bully its way into the paint, and its 32% three-point shooting couldn’t compensate.

“They weren’t as aggressive as last night,” Lue said. “And that’s why they kicked our butt. And then offensively, I just liked the way we attacked the paint. I liked the way we shared the basketball. We kept driving and kicking, making plays for ourselves and one another.”

Jonas Valanciunas scored 22 for Memphis (14-15) and Morant added 20.

It was a building block for a Clippers team that acutely knows the consequences of not learning from its mistakes.

In November, George voiced frustrations on a podcast about the team’s inability to both identify and execute adjustments during a disastrous postseason exit in which the Clippers lost a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven, second-round series against Denver despite holding double-digit leads in all three of their final defeats.

"That was an opportunity that was missed," said Lou Williams, who scored 17 points off the bench. "It’s over with. Can’t get it back. The way that this team carries itself, we are not a chip-on-our-shoulder-type of team. We try to stay as positive as we can and continue to build."

The loss sparked a shakeup that cost coach Doc Rivers his job and inspired the team to heed what Leonard asked for after the Game 7 loss to the Nuggets — a roster filled with high-IQ players. Savvy veterans including Nicolas Batum and Serge Ibaka were added in free agency. The team hired Lue, a coach whose admirers called a quick thinker and unafraid to push his team’s buttons.

“I think we have great players on this team,” Lue said. “We just got to continue to keep challenging these guys to get better, not being happy with where we’re at.”

In the lead-up to Friday, Leonard “could feel [Lue’s] frustration; we could feel each other’s frustration. We wanted to come out first tonight with a hit-first mentality, try to get on the defensive end. Pretty much worked out for us.”

The Clippers’ adjustments haven’t always been so abrupt and effective this season. Leonard said the team can “take us a while to find what’s going on or what’s working.” But he said the team has gotten better, and Friday was the latest evidence.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.