Clippers' offense shreds Knicks defense behind Kawhi Leonard and supporting cast

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Emmanuel Morgan
·4 min read
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New York Knicks shooting guard RJ Barrett (9) controls the ball against Los Angeles Clippers small forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 31, 2021, in New York. (Brad Penner/Pool Photo via AP)
New York Knicks shooting guard R.J. Barrett controls the ball against Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during the first half on Sunday in New York. (Brad Penner / Associated Press)

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue remembers the early mornings of walking into the Boston Celtics’ facility a decade ago and seeing Tom Thibodeau already inside.

Lue and Thibodeau, both former Celtics assistant coaches, worked closely together studying tape, and Lue saw Thibodeau’s renowned defensive mindset on a personal level. Lue thanked him for his mentorship during his first opportunity in the NBA’s coaching ranks.

But on Sunday, Thibodeau’s Knicks, who boast the NBA’s third-best defensive rating, failed to contain one of the top-scoring teams, losing to the Clippers 129 -115 at Madison Square Garden. The Clippers (16-5) improved to 3-1 on their six-game trip, which continues Tuesday in Brooklyn.

Asked how the Clippers were able to score so easily against a stingy opponent, Paul George offered a simple answer.

“We’re just a pretty good offensive team,” he said on a videoconference.

In his second game back from health and safety protocols, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points on eight-for-15 shooting. He did it all, posting up defenders, slamming a one-handed dunk in the paint, hitting mid-range jump shots and a three-pointer. George, who also missed time with Leonard, finished with 17 points on seven-for-16 shooting.

George and Leonard converted only two of 11 three-pointers. Still, the Clippers shot 44.7.% from three-point range on 38 attempts, a sign, George said, that the team’s stars don’t need to carry the load in order to be successful.

“We share the ball, we move it, we look for the open man and we emphasize passing up good shots for great ones,” George said. “ I think we’re doing a great job at that. We’re shooting them expecting to make them, and when we’re shooting great ones, we’re expecting to really hit them.”

Leading 66-65 at halftime, the Clippers opened the third quarter with a 7-0 run before Reggie Jackson took over, scoring 13 of his 18 points, including three consecutive three-pointers, to open a double-digit lead. New York (9-12) showed life to keep the game competitive, but couldn’t recreate its first-half production. Lue credited the Clippers’ second-half adjustments for killing the Knicks’ momentum.

“We just changed our defense,” he said. “And then we saw what we were doing and then changed our offensive package and were able to come out with a win.”

The Knicks cut into their fourth-quarter deficit when rookie Immanuel Quickley hit a three, missed a jump shot but slithered through a block of defenders to grab his rebound and score on a floater, then hit another three, cutting the lead to 105-103. After a timeout, the Clippers put more defensive attention on Quickley.

“Those are shots he can make,” Lue said. “We had to do something different to try to take that away and was able to do it towards the end of that fourth quarter.”

Clippers center Ivica Zubac threw down a dunk, and a Knicks turnover sparked a 9-0 Clippers run with just less than six minutes remaining.

Knicks forward Julius Randle scored 27 points, Quickley scored 25 off the bench and guard R.J. Barrett added 23. Clippers center Serge Ibaka scored 15 points, including three of four from three-point range.

Three observations

◆ With starting point guard Patrick Beverley sitting out his fourth consecutive game with a knee injury, Jackson played well in his absence. He scored 18 points and made 50% of his shots, including three three-point attempts.

“Reggie has been playing well all year,” Leonard said. “He’s finally getting his opportunity and he’s making something out of it.”

◆ In terms of the box score, forward Patrick Patterson played a perfect game. He finished with 13 points and hit all five of his shots, including three three-pointers. He started in place of Nicolas Batum, who is nursing a groin injury.

“He had to catch and shoot and he made his shots,” Leonard said. “ He’s confident in his shot and tonight he came out aggressive.”

◆ Zubac finished third on the team with four assists, a nod to his continued development as a facilitator. Lue credited Zubac for being decisive with his passes, as it helps the flow of the offense, especially for perimeter players.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.