In the afterglow of Paul George’s spectacular return after a three-month layoff, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue had something else on his mind: an apology.
Lue said he sought out starting forward Marcus Morris Sr., who had made just one of his six shots in Tuesday’s win against Utah, and failed to make a three-pointer for a fourth consecutive game, to say that he needed to do a better job putting Morris in better positions to help offensively, a need that was especially needed with Jackson and George dominating touches.
“I told him I gotta do a better job of keeping him in the flow of the rhythm of the game, which I didn’t do,” Lue said Thursday. “Everybody was excited to get PG back and see what he can do. And he played great. But still, we need Reggie [Jackson] and Marcus to also play well.”
Morris exceeded Tuesday’s scoring within minutes Thursday in Chicago’s United Center, his scoring impact getting the Clippers off to their best offensive first quarter in almost four weeks. Then Jackson’s big offensive night helped push their lead to as large as 16. And George, despite a shooting performance that wasn’t as efficient as Tuesday’s 34-point reminder of his offensive gifts, scored nine fourth-quarter points, including two free throws with 11 seconds left to put the Clippers up three.
Unless — or perhaps until — Norman Powell and Kawhi Leonard, who watched Thursday from the sideline in a White Sox hat, return this season, the Clippers’ offense and playoff potential hinges on the output of its trio of veterans, George, Morris and Jackson. Thursday offered fresh evidence each can have their moment in the same game — and also the mistakes of focus, execution or both that unraveled all of it.
Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan scored a season-high 50 points in a 135-130 Bulls victory that seemed out of reach until the Clippers froze in the final seconds. It was only their fifth loss in 32 games this season when leading entering the fourth quarter.
Up three with seven seconds left, wing Terance Mann fouled DeRozan before an inbounds pass, a foul away from the ball that not only gave Chicago one free throw, which DeRozan made, but the ball back, which led to DeRozan taking a deep three-pointer — only to be fouled by George with 3.5 seconds left.
DeRozan made the first two free throws but missed what would have been the game-winner — leading to overtime that saw George, who had played 32 minutes, stay on the bench as the Clippers (37-40) adhered to a cap on his workload.
After shooting 0-for-12 from beyond the arc in his last four games, Morris made one of his two and finished with 20 points, with 14 coming in the first half. Jackson scored 34 points, his fourth 30-point game this season and first since March 9, and George made seven of his 20 shots for 22 points.
After DeRozan’s three-pointer pulled Chicago (45-32) within four points with 10 minutes remaining, the Clippers received gut-check baskets in the form of Luke Kennard’s three-pointer, off an assist from Isaiah Hartenstein, and Mann’s high degree-of-difficulty drive for a layup to push the lead to a more comfortable nine.
In his 28th minute, three fewer than he’d played Tuesday, George sat for rest with five minutes to play and the Clippers leading by five when Nicolas Batum made his fourth three-pointer to again extend the lead, this time to eight. With George still on the bench, Jackson made his fifth three-pointer with four minutes to play to make the lead nine. Shortly afterward, George returned for one final push that eventually went awry in the final seconds.
Lue has promised the season’s remaining games will act as a lab in which he’ll continue to test which lineup combinations work best and Thursday’s most interesting wrinkle was the extended use of George, Batum and Robert Covington. That combination of 6-foot-7 or taller wings, each among the league’s best at deflecting passes or dribbles, had played barely a minute Tuesday but Lue clearly trusted the trio enough to close each half’s final minutes of each half.
In the eight minutes Covington and Batum shared in the first half the Clippers outscored Chicago by seven. With a wrap on an injured shooting hand, Covington made two clutch free throws in the final seconds of regulation and finished with seven points. Batum had 17 points.