It was late December when Paul George, the Clippers’ star wing, delivered the autopsy of a blown 20-point lead in Philadelphia inside the quiet of an empty locker room.
The Clippers had played perhaps their best first half of the season. Then their shot selection went haywire, their defense struggled to rein in the 76ers’ stars and a statement win transformed into an indictment defeat as George lamented an inability to be “a team that’s just going to finish you.”
One month later, George and the Clippers had played maybe their best first half of the season, racking up 77 points and 15 three-pointers and a 23-point lead. But with 6 minutes, 46 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, they gathered in a huddle inside a howling Crypto.com Arena. Their lead was down to 10, their red-hot shooting had cooled and they had struggled to rein in the Lakers’ superlative star in the quarter, as LeBron James dunked and swished three-pointers for 15 of his 46 points.
“We came to the huddle, we said that we were still up 10 points, this team isn’t going to quit and we wanted to come out and still push the pace and get those stops,” Clippers wing Kawhi Leonard said.
In the process they stopped the Lakers’ comeback cold in a 133-115 win that marked their 10th consecutive victory against the Lakers under coach Tyronn Lue, claimed their third straight win overall and pushed a little closer toward realizing the top-end potential that, like so much else, has been inconsistent for so long.
“I thought we did that in San Antonio, we did that in Dallas and tonight, I thought we’ve shown, I think we’ve taken that step of going up late regardless of how the game goes,” George said after scoring 27 points with nine rebounds, making three of his five shots in the fourth quarter. “It might be a close game, but down the stretch and the fourth, I thought that we’ve pushed the lead and we extended the lead and put the game away.
“So that’s growth for us. That’s a step in the right direction. I think for us now, it’s just, if we can stay healthy we’re building something good here. We just gotta stay healthy.”
It wasn’t lost on the Clippers (26-24) that they staved off the Lakers by turning areas where they have endured struggles into strengths. A defense that had sunk to the league’s fourth-worst in the halfcourt since that Dec. 23 loss in Philadelphia got four stops over the critical 1 minutes and 39 seconds after the Lakers had pulled within 10. During the timeout they switched into a “drop” coverage of James’ on pick-and-rolls in order to keep Kawhi Leonard guarding James instead of switching defenders, Lue said.
And when the Clippers needed a big shot, they got one from Reggie Jackson, the embattled point guard who in recent weeks has gone from out of the rotation to the middle of Tuesday’s celebration.
When Lakers guard Russell Westbrook threw an out-of-bounds pass well beyond the Lakers’ backcourt, George chased it down, falling to the floor and forcing Dennis Schröder to make a quick pass that was intercepted by Leonard for a layup and foul. The lead was 13.
The stretch wasn’t without its sliding-doors moments that could have allowed the Lakers back in the game. On the next possession a Clippers switch left both Leonard and Jackson to momentarily lose contact with James but his three-pointer misfired, and George pulled in the rebound to end the possession — something the Clippers have struggled doing with much consistency.
Then George and the ball tumbled out of bounds on the following possession. But when the Clippers retained the ball, George threw a crisp cross-court pass to assist Jackson for a three-pointer. The lead was 16.
And finally, after Westbrook lost his dribble for another turnover, Leonard grabbed the loose ball and outran Schröder for a dunk that forced Lakers coach Darvin Ham to empty his bench with five minutes left, conceding defeat. The lead was 18. By the end of the Clippers win, Lue laughed with a fan sitting near the team’s bench — the boxer Floyd Mayweather, no stranger to landing knockout blows.
“We got a long ways to go, because, [George] at the point and what we wanna run when teams get up and pressure us, how we want to handle it, but defensively, offensively, scoring 133 points, scoring the basketball, PG in a rhythm, Kawhi in a rhythm and that’s kind of like what you envision coming into the season,” Lue said. “And so, we’re not there yet. We still got a long ways to go, but I love our process.
“I love the guys putting in the work with our practices that we’ve been having and you know, just, just trying to stay with the program until we get to where we want to get to. But right now I think we’re doing a good job of trending upwards.”
The lineup on the floor during the 1:39 that swung the game featured Leonard, George and reserve Norman Powell, the trio that the front office envisioned could thrive together upon trading for Powell, and forward Robert Covington, 11 months ago. Injuries have limited their time as a group but on Tuesday, the Powell-Leonard-George trio outscored the Lakers by 10 in nearly 11 minutes together. Leonard had 25 points, and Powell added 22 off the bench.
During the three-game win streak the three wings have made 61% of their field goals, 53% of their three-pointers and 97% of their free throws.
“Both of them draw so much attention from the defense it’s just playing off them to be an outlet and finish on the opposite end of the floor,” Powell said.
Jackson was a surprise member of the lineup that closed out the win, having lost his starting job nearly three weeks earlier, and with his minutes only recently becoming consistent again because of an abdominal injury sidelining backup guard John Wall. The abrupt role change “was weighing on him a little bit,” said George, one of Jackson’s close friends.
Jackson’s three-pointer on George’s assist gave him 19 points in 26 minutes — his most points since Dec. 27 and minutes since Jan. 2 — and when the Lakers called their timeout with 5:07 left after the 8-0 Clippers run, teammate Terance Mann bumped chests with Jackson, flexing only inches from the point guard’s goggle-covered eyes.
Lue credited Jackson’s ballhandling as doing “a great job of handling the pressure” of the Lakers’ guards. Jackson had two turnovers, but five assists, and the Clippers outscored the Lakers by 11 in his minutes.
“I think he’s finding his niche, he’s finding his way, he’s figuring out how to play, he’s found his rhythm,” George said. “And I think for him he’s just having fun again playing ball. Like, he’s enjoying the game and you see it and he’s showing that spunk and that energy that he’s been great with. I’m happy he had a great game.”