If Thursday‘s game was a loss for the Clippers, it was also a sigh of relief.
Paul George was back. So was the team’s long-dormant three-point shooting.
George, the All-Star forward who missed the season’s first 11 games while recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries, absorbed contact while bouncing off defenders in the 132-127 loss to the Pelicans in New Orleans and felt no worse for the wear while scoring 33 points in 24 minutes, the fourth-highest-scoring debut in Clippers history.
“My body feels good,” George said. “I knew I was healthy and I knew I was 100%, shoulder-wise.”
The performance paves the way for George to play alongside Kawhi Leonard in a superstar pairing that has been anticipated ever since they joined the Clippers on the same July night and turned them into championship contenders by the time the sun rose the following morning.
It could happen as early as Saturday, when Atlanta visits Staples Center, though the team listed Leonard as questionable to face the Hawks because of left knee injury management.
Even coach Doc Rivers doesn’t quite know what to expect from their first action together. George was medically cleared for full contact last week, and during his lone practice since, he played with Clippers reserves facing Leonard’s starters. The unknown isn’t so much how George and Leonard will play, especially after George’s smooth offensive debut, but how the other three Clippers surrounding them will mesh.
“It’s gonna be crazy,” teammate Rodney McGruder said. “Him, Kawhi and Lou [Williams]? It’s gonna be a lot of fun, for sure.”
But George’s return wasn’t the only one the Clippers gladly welcomed Thursday.
If Clippers three-point shooting hadn’t been missing as long as George, who played his first game since April 23, it only felt like it.
Entering Thursday ranked 27th in three-point accuracy, making just 32.2% of their attempts, the Clippers made 11 of their 24 shots from deep against the Pelicans. George made three of his five to back up his feeling that his repaired shoulders felt good and pick up where he left off last season, when he made a career-high 3.8 three-pointers a game on 38% shooting in Oklahoma City.
More surprising were the career-high five three-pointers made by McGruder as part of a 20-point night. Consider that he’d started the season scoreless in 67 minutes.
“It’s basketball, it comes around,” McGruder said. “You just have to stay persistent, stay locked in, stay focused and anything can happen.”
Said Rivers: “We told him, he’s a shooter. I think if you say it enough, you start becoming one.”
Rivers expressed “zero concern” earlier this week about the roster’s three-point struggles, saying the attempts were quality looks taken by shooters with histories of accuracy.
“It’s funny, even our staff, no one talks about it,” Rivers said. “I watch them shoot every day and they go in.”
Still, typically dead-eye guards Landry Shamet, a career 41.4% three-point shooter making 36% of his attempts this season, and Patrick Beverley (37.3% for his career, 15.2% this season) had experienced more inconsistency than expected. Even the most promising looks proved troublesome during Wednesday’s loss in Houston. The Clippers missed 14 of their 20 three-pointers in which the closest Rockets defender was at least six feet away, shots classified by the NBA as “wide open.”
If the struggles were befuddling, they weren’t yet unnerving. The Clippers’ offense isn’t reliant on three-pointers, with slightly more than a quarter of their points coming from behind the arc, the fourth-lowest share in the NBA. The league’s most prolific shooter, Houston’s James Harden, makes nearly half as many three-pointers per game as the entire Clippers’ roster.
They’ve compensated in other ways. Leonard is a rare practitioner of the art of midrange jumpers. The Clippers live at the free-throw line, where their 27 attempts per game are third most in the league, and score a larger percentage of their points in the paint and off turnovers than the league average.
A similar formula was used last season to create one of the league’s top offenses despite attempting the third-fewest three-pointers per game. The major difference, of course, was that last season the Clippers ranked second in accuracy from deep at 38.8%.
The Clippers’ 33% three-point shooting currently ranks 23rd. Rivers, meanwhile, will continue telling his players they are shooters.
“Sometimes the ball bounces your way and sometimes it don’t, and tonight it just did,” forward Maurice Harkless said following the loss in New Orleans. “Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, but it was definitely a better shooting night than we had.”
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570
Update: Since a 2-0 start the Hawks (4-7) have lost seven of their last nine despite the offensive production of second-year guard Trae Young, who at one point recorded at least 30 points and 10 assists in three consecutive games. Young has increased his scoring out of necessity after the loss of a pair of fellow young Hawks. Guard Kevin Huerter, who’d averaged 9.3 points this season, is sidelined for at least two weeks because of a strained left rotator cuff, and center John Collins was suspended by the NBA on Nov. 5 for 25 games after violating the league’s anti-drug program. The 21-year-old Young shares a locker room with 42-year-old Vince Carter, whose NBA debut came only four months after Young was born.