In their first home game of the regular season, the Los Angeles Clippers got embarrassed by the Dallas Mavericks. So far that defeat has appeared to be an arbitrary measure of what the Clippers are about this season. The Clippers are a work in progress with a new head coach, a turnover in the roster and a different mental makeup following their epic collapse in the NBA playoffs last season.
With that in mind, the Clippers, one season in with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, are playing like a different ballclub altogether. Outside of that ugly loss to Dallas, the Clippers have whipped up on the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets. You can add Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers to that list.
Coming off an impressive win against the Timberwolves, the Clippers bottled up Lillard with great defensive play and held the Portland star to just 20 points in a 128-105 blowout win at STAPLES Center. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said in his postgame press conference that the big plus for him was that his team kept their turnovers to a minimum.
The Clippers committed just 10 turnovers in securing their fourth win of the season.
“I think taking care of the basketball,” Lue said. “Until the last four or five minutes of the game, we had six turnovers. We had a big emphasis on taking care of the basketball. We kept [Portland] to five offensive rebounds, so keeping that team off the glass was big for us. I thought we did a good job on mixing it up on [Damian Lillard]. A great player like that, we just gave him different looks. We blitzed a little bit, we dropped a little bit, we switched a little bit, and just tried to keep him off balance. I thought our team did a good job at understanding what coverage we were in and going out and executing.”
The season is young yet, but the Clippers are coming hard this season. Some would say the Clippers did the same thing a year ago when they were expected to contend for the NBA championship before they flamed out against the Nuggets in the second round of the postseason after they blew a 3-1 series lead. There’s an argument to be made on that front.
The bigger picture here is that last season is behind everyone’s shoulder. The Clippers are playing with a new attitude. Lillard, coming off a game in which he scored 31 points to lead the Trail Blazers to a surprise win against the Lakers. was kept in check the whole night by the Clippers. In a little over 29 minutes of action, Lillard was able to connect on just 3 of 14 shots from the field.
“I think if you watch [Damian Lillard] play he’s ready to destroy any team he plays against,” Lue said. “It’s just not from trash-talking or what happened last year in the bubble. When [Damian Lillard] plays he wants to destroy everybody he plays. I don’t think that’s going to play a factor or role in how he plays, he’s a very aggressive scorer. We know he can score 50 points any given night. We just wanted to come out and try to set the tone early and try to blitz him to start the game. He made some good passes and he got some good shots, but we were able to keep him off balance. The coaching staff did a great job of that.”
More impressive than taking Lillard out of the ballgame, was the way the Clippers bounced back from that hideous 124-73 defeat to the Mavericks just three days before. Just how ugly was it? The Clippers scored just 27 points by halftime and found themselves down 50 points (77-27) at intermission. Well, somebody had to take the brunt of their wrath after that laying that egg.
Getting a better overall team effort, the Clippers dashed past the Timberwolves with a 124-101 win against Minnesota in the first of back-to-back home games. The Clippers had seven players score in double-figures and produced 32 assists as a team.
“I think sharing the basketball and getting into the paint,” Lue said. “Last game we only had sixteen paint attacks which is probably an all-time low in NBA history. We really focused on getting into the paint and making that extra pass for guys to get open shots or driving again for another open shot. I thought tonight we really attacked the paint that led to 32 assists.”
In fairness to the team, the Clippers played their highly anticipated matchup against Dallas, a team they ousted in the first round in last season’s playoffs, without Leonard. Leonard suffered a facial injury in the Clippers’ 121-108 win against the Nuggets on Christmas Day. Leonard returned to play against Portland but was not in the lineup against Minnesota.
Leonard’s absence gave the Clippers to show off their depth in the win against Minnesota. The player who stood out the most in this victory was guard Reggie Jackson, George said.
“[Reggie Jackson] was more than effective today,” George said. “I thought that he brought a lot of energy from the second he got on the court. He plugged, he played downhill, he made the easy and extra passes. I thought he attacked, and he was aggressive on one-on-one plays.”
For his part, Jackson gave a team assist to center Ivica Zubac, who came up with 12 points and three blocked shots in the Clippers’ win.
“Zubac was making their team pay for being a smaller team,” said Jackson. “He really established himself as a big guy today, so proud of him for doing that. Really attacking the paint, rebounding, getting second-chance points, making sure we had lanes when he was rolling. He made it easy on us. As a team, I think we did a great job touching the paint and then moving the ball. Nobody let [the ball] stick, maybe we may have a little bit early in the first [quarter], but after that, we really were focused on attacking the paint and kicking it out to try to get the right shot.”