March 4, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Kawhi Leonard, Paul George lead Clippers to rout over Wizards

By his own admission, Tyronn Lue didn’t devote much time while coaching Cleveland to three consecutive NBA Finals appearances to deep analytical dives. He began taking a closer look at the numbers after his firing, seeing the way the league as a whole was going. With the Clippers, part of his postgame routine involves a review with the team’s vice president of basketball research and analytics, Jud Winton.

As much stock as Lue now puts in the numbers, he remains just as strong of a believer in the eye test. Ranking second in half-court offense entering Tuesday’s matchup against Washington suggested an attack running on all cylinders. The context that one number omitted, he said, was a dip in the team’s paint touches, a metric he prizes above almost any other and one that had made the offense indeed so dangerous before a stretch of injuries recently hit the roster.

“The numbers, analytic-wise, can say one thing,” Lue said before tipoff, “but as far as me looking at it, it’s something that we got to get better at, of getting into the paint and creating for one another.”

The numbers during a 135-116 win Tuesday suggested exactly the leap forward Lue wanted. And the eye test showed a team that stopped its worrisome late-game slide by getting back to what had built its 24-point lead in the first place.

Twenty of the Clippers’ 36 first-quarter points were scored in the paint, two off their season high for any quarter. When center Ivica Zubac screened star Wizards guard Bradley Beal at the midcourt logo, newly named All-Star Paul George had a direct path toward the rim, reaching it for a layup and 51-29 lead in only a few dribbles — just one of his 11 baskets on a night when he scored 30 points to go with Kawhi Leonard’s team-high 32.

On the next Clippers possession, George again drove through a defense that has allowed the fewest field-goal attempts in the restricted area this season, a decision that led to two free throws.

“When we do that, we’re a different team,” Lue said. “And I thought Kawhi and PG really set a tone early in doing that.”

Leading by 18 at halftime, after scoring 70 points in a half for the eighth time this season, it seemed clear that the team had responded to what Lue had written on the white board inside the locker room, in big letters: “Drive and get into the paint.”

The final score read like a rout, but the eye test suggested a much more difficult victory, as the Clippers’ lead was reduced to just five entering the fourth quarter after a 17-7 run by the Wizards (11-18), who already had rallied from down 20, 14 and 17 over the last three games — all victories. Beal and Russell Westbrook, who had started just three for 11 from the field, finished with 28 and 20 points, respectively, the second consecutive game in which the Clippers watched as a star opposing backcourt began to heat up and put the game in jeopardy.

“They can score the basketball,” Lue said. “They went small and they had a lot of shooters on the floor.”

Clippers guard Reggie Jackson runs into Washington Wizards forward Davis Bertans (42) in the second half at Staples Center on Tuesday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Coming off Sunday’s dispiriting loss to Brooklyn, the Clippers (23-10) would have taken the win no matter the means. But the fashion in which they pushed back felt especially appropriate.

Dribbling just past the free-throw line in the fourth quarter, Zubac bounced a pass to a cutting Terance Mann, who flushed a one-handed dunk for a 10-point lead. George’s third assist began as a drive before he turned toward the three-point line and found an open Marcus Morris for an 11-point lead with 9 minutes 13 seconds to play. The Clippers made 19 of 38 three-point attempts.

Then Zubac caught a loose ball just outside the free-throw line, took one dribble and crushed a one-handed dunk over Davis Bertans’ outstretched 6-foot-10 wingspan. The lead was 13. There were still just under eight minutes to play. And yet all things considered, it was the victory’s final exclamation point, as teammates spilled out of their individual sideline seats to celebrate together along the baseline.

Zubac, challenged by Lue and his teammates to dunk more often, walked up to his coach and asked, half-jokingly, whether that finish was emphatic enough for him. Zubac finished with 12 points, making all six of his shots, and grabbed 12 rebounds. He scored 10 of the 56 points scored by the Clippers in the paint, a total just four off their season high.

Three Observations

1. Lou Williams was given the night off, Lue said, which opened the door for Luke Kennard to play for the first time in four games (though one of those absences was because of an injury). He finished with 11 minutes.

2. Still, even with Kennard back in the rotation during the first half, this night emphasized how strong a foothold Terance Mann has in the rotation. He harried Washington’s star backcourt during his 20 minutes, made both of his three-pointers – significant considering his streakiness behind the arc — and finished with 12 points and four rebounds.

3. The Clippers managed George’s minutes to avoid a repeat of Sunday, when he couldn’t play the final minutes of a close loss because of a minutes restriction. Instead, he didn’t need to play late in the fourth quarter given the ballooning lead. He finished with 29 minutes, four fewer than Sunday.