Two days after the Clippers played what their coach, Tyronn Lue, described as their best basketball of an up and down season, players sat in folding chairs in their practice facility Monday morning to revisit what Lue had also considered their “blueprint.” offensive success.
To get the point across, a whiteboard in front of the assembled seats listed the season’s highest numbers from Saturday night’s stellar win over the San Antonio Spurs: passes, ball reversals, assist count, effective field goal percentage.
The numbers—particularly the Clippers’ 329 passes as tracked by Second Spectrum, a stark contrast to their fourth-season average of 262 from the all-time low—backed up by data to which the litmus test Lue often refers to is simply the “correct player played. way.”
A strained right hamstring tendon sidelined Paul George for Monday night’s 121-114 victory over Utah at the Crypto.com Arena, a victory that offered a reminder of why there is a premium to keep playing the right way while the Clippers improved to 11-7, just half a game behind the Jazz’s Western Conference leading record.
In a first half that produced numbers worthy of Lue’s whiteboard, the Clippers scored 10 unanswered points late in the first quarter, capped by reserve point guard John Wall’s 40-foot swell that swept through the net. Wall celebrated a 10-point lead by strumming an imaginary guitar, and he was just getting started. Wall, coming off the bench to replace Kawhi Leonard, kept himself and the ball moving at a breakneck pace. Lue set a goal of 20 transition points – Wall helped them score 17 in the first half, the kind of easy points the Clippers need to generate with George, one of their top shot makers, unavailable.
“Making the right game in transition, which was important for us,” he said.
One game after posting 15 assists, Wall sprinted down the last line of Utah’s transitional defense for layups, finding Norman Powell for short jumpers and Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum for spot-up three-pointers as the Clippers built a 17-point lead 9:50 for rest. Instead of the usual second-quarter lull, the Clippers fired back after their lead dwindled to eight, extending it to 13, while assisting on 17 of their 26 baskets.
To open the third quarter, Marcus Morris Sr. on top of the three-point arc and watched Leonard cut all alone down the baseline to the rim before firing a pass for a dunk and an eight-point lead.
Then it seemed like another team showed up when Leonard checked out. Wall again became the Clippers’ chief distributor – this time in passes for the Jazz. He finished with as many turnovers, eight, as assists and never played in the fourth.
There were no boxouts en route to allowing Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen six rebounds in the quarter—one more than the Clippers compiled as a team. When a ball fell to the ground, no Clippers went to ground to stabilize it, and Utah’s hustle led to a bucket en route to winning the quarter by 15 points.
But the lesson of making the simple game wasn’t something the Clippers had to learn the hard way. In the fourth quarter, Jackson, who scored 27 points—his third straight game with at least 20—attacked the dribble paint and found open shooters. There were only two Clippers sales. Powell scored nine of his 30 points off the bench in the last quarter by doing exactly what the Clippers envisioned when they traded for him last season, earning seven free throws on his to-the-rim drives.
“Sixth man of the year, that should be his goal,” said Lue.
And holding on to a 117-112 lead with a minute left, Amir Coffey faced a menacing Talen Horton-Tucker and pulled a critical strike to preserve a win built on the habits Lue was so eager to see .
A strained right hamstring tendon sidelined George, and the loss of the team’s leading scorer indefinitely lowers the offense’s margin of error. It was a different diagnosis than the sore right knee that initially knocked George out after just 15 very effective minutes Saturday, and one that will keep him every day, though Lue said the All-Star averaged 23.6 points per game felt fine.
George’s absence, so soon after the Clippers almost finally emerged healthy after Leonard’s return from a knee injury that cost him 12 games in three weeks, was another twist on the theme of the past two Clippers seasons, a span of time that has seen them rarely. healthy at the same time. In addition, there is no clarity on how soon guard Luke Kennard will be able to return from a calf injury.
But whether they are healthy or have holes in their rotation, Lue wanted his team to show a through line that played his definition of the right way.
“Just make the simple game,” he said before the tip. “The defense will show you what they give you, and we have to make those plays. And so we’ve been hammering on it all year. It is early in the season, but we have to get better at that.”
Monday night was a demonstration in the power to do just that – and the pitfalls of not doing so.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.