Kawhi Leonard closes win with Paul George on bench, Patrick Beverley in locker room

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Andrew Greif
·4 min read
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Los Angeles, CA, Sunday, January 24, 2021 - LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) hauls.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard pulls down a rebound during a 108-100 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center on Sunday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Over the last two weeks, the Clippers have built a seven-game winning streak by producing stretches of basketball that have appeared stunningly effortless: passes whipping from one side of the court to the other, shots falling at NBA-best rates and furious second-half efforts that churned out four consecutive blowouts by at least 14 points.

About all that was the same Sunday, during a game that was more struggle than statement, was the result.

Already down forward Marcus Morris because of what the Clippers said was a stomach illness, they lost starting point guard Patrick Beverley at halftime because of an injured right knee. Their league-best three-point shooting never quite clicked, less than 31% for a second consecutive game. Their star tandem operated at only half of its power, and Paul George, who struggled to 11 points on four-for-13 shooting, was left on the bench during the final 4 minutes 31 seconds, after feeling tightness in his hamstring, coach Tyronn Lue said.

From there he watched as Oklahoma City scored 11 unanswered points to pull within six with 1:56 to play.

Against an opponent with more offensive firepower than Oklahoma City, the Clippers might not have escaped with a 108-100 win. But, critically, another constant of this streak remained: a superb Kawhi Leonard.

His 34 points, nine rebounds and eight assists and zero turnovers, in 36 minutes, kept the Clippers tied for the NBA’s best record.

“He's been phenomenal for us, and tonight, we had to ride him,” Lue said on a videoconference, and added “Kawhi had it going so we played through him a lot, especially in that second half and he created points for himself and he created points for our team as well, so we had to ride him pretty hard just so we could continue to keep the lead.”

Though the Clippers (13-4) never trailed, they never got comfortable, either. Their lead was cut to eight in the second quarter, five in the third and six in the fourth. They shot 44% from the field and committed only 10 turnovers in their final home game before starting a six-game trip that will open with questions about the availability of Morris, Beverley and George. Lue did not have an update on Beverley but George indicated his hamstring “should be good.”

“It was a little tight tonight,” he said. “Tried to give it a go and give whatever I had, you know. We went up 17 at that point, checked out just to limit anything else happening to it. And you know, they end up making it very interesting at the end.”

With George unable to gain rhythm, his close friend Reggie Jackson found his own despite short notice that he would be playing after Beverley’s injury. Jackson scored 14 points over his next 20 minutes and looked like a player bent on seizing his opportunity, having fallen out of the regular rotation. He attempted six free throws; no other Clipper took more than two.

“My mind-set was really just to come out, keep the train moving along,” he said.

With three of the Clippers’ best defenders missing, it was perhaps not a fair test of a defense that has improved from the league’s bottom third to 15th.

Still, former Clippers guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 15 of his team-high 23 points after halftime, and the Thunder (6-9) scored 66 points in the paint.

“Obviously we got the win but down that stretch, their guys were getting by us, it allowed them to break down our defense and play out the closeouts,” Leonard said. “They got some easy layups, got some open corner threes and they were able to keep pushing. They just ran out of time.”

Three observations

  • How much does Lue trust Ivica Zubac? He played the center virtually all of the final 15 minutes, playing him over Serge Ibaka, who had made seven of eight shots for 17 points. Lue didn’t want to disrupt Zubac’s rhythm and extended his minutes. Zubac played only 3.4 minutes per fourth quarter last season and said he is “so much more comfortable” playing in late-game situations this season because of his increased reps under Lue. Over his last six games, Zubac has averaged 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and is shooting 80%.

  • Amid the Clippers’ three-point shooting struggles in their last two victories, Luke Kennard has made one of his last nine from deep.

  • Outside of Zubac and Jackson, the Clippers’ bench made two of 19 shots.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.