Paul George returns to lead Clippers to 25-point comeback win over Jazz

Paul George returns to lead Clippers to 25 point comeback win

Paul George looked like himself again.

His team does as well.

Forty-three games and 97 days since he began resting a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right, shooting elbow, the All-Star wing needed only two minutes to flash his elite defensive form, one quarter to regain his offensive rhythm and one game to enliven a dragging Clippers team and end their five-game losing streak.

All of it looked familiar amid a 121-115 victory — George using his in-and-out dribble to freeze a defender in the paint, comfortably making step-back jump shots and ending Utah possessions with his quick hands.

It ended with what has become an utterly familiar scene as well, as the Clippers completed their fourth comeback when trailing by at least 24 points this season — the most by a team in the last 25 seasons — behind George’s 34 points, six assists, two rebounds and four steals to help the Clippers (37-39) stay composed after they trailed by 25 in the third quarter.

With the Clippers all but locked in eighth place in the Western Conference and bound for the NBA postseason play-in tournament, George’s return with seven games left in the regular season was always going to be needed to be viewed in how it would affect his team’s performance come mid-April, not late March.

But in the short term, the Clippers needed to enter the playoffs with a sense of momentum, not malaise, and after a brutal beginning with the Clippers making three of their first 18 shot attempts, they pummeled the Jazz, whose meltdown in the closing moments was embodied by star guard Donovan Mitchell’s appeal for a timeout with 10 seconds to play when Utah (45-31) had none remaining.

It led to a technical free throw and a streak-breaking victory, the best welcome George could have envisioned upon his return.

Talking during a postgame television interview, George’s answer was interrupted by teammate and close friend Reggie Jackson, who snuck behind him and chanted “MVP!”

“With seven games left in the season, he could very easily just called it quits, but he wants to play,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff. “And that’s huge, so just happy for that.”

George swiped the dribble of Mitchell twice within his first two minutes, made another steal from behind Mike Conley shortly afterward and had another that went uncredited because of a foul during the first half.

Clippers guard Paul George, left, and guard Reggie Jackson talk during the first half against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday at Arena.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

After missing his first three shot attempts, he dribbled around a screen and into a three-pointer one minute into the second quarter for his first basket since Dec. 22, a shot he followed with another three-pointer in the face of defensive player of the year Rudy Gobert.

A decoy in the corner on the Clippers’ first play, George gradually was used in pick and rolls at the top of the three-point arc, sprinted in from the corners before taking handoffs from big men and slipped around pin screens.

Tugging at his shorts in the third quarter, he smiled at the free-throw line after his physical drive into the paint earned a foul, looking undaunted by the prospect of live contact, then used an inside-out dribble on another drive to freeze Jazz big man Greg Monroe and free himself for a layup. George ended the 20-point quarter — his highest-scoring quarter this season — with a layup and foul in the final seconds.

After making his sixth three-pointer to pull the Clippers within seven with 5:37 to play, George ripped the dribble of Mitchell for his fourth steal, leading to a layup at the other end and forcing a Utah timeout.

The delay did little to slow the Jazz’s disappearing lead, as George skied to collect an alley-oop with his right hand before it went out of bounds before redirecting the lob to Isaiah Hartenstein using one motion to spur a dunk that pulled the Clippers to within three with 4:09 to play, the arena its loudest in weeks.

The Clippers took their first lead 45 minutes into the game on a soft floater from Hartenstein, then regained it by one with 95 seconds to play after George’s drive finished with a layup.

Lue said before tipoff that there would be an “adjustment period” for George, and a minutes limit, so as to not overwhelm his conditioning and elbow upon his return. But the Clippers used him for 31 minutes and he never looked worse for wear when it mattered.

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