Only a few minutes had passed after Atlanta’s most lopsided regular-season loss in franchise history when Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce was asked about the man responsible for most of the damage.
“You saw a guy step out on the court that had no rust,” Pierce said Saturday night inside Staples Center.
Playing in his first home game as a Clipper, in front of a welcoming audience of family and friends, forward Paul George dropped 37 points in less than 21 minutes in a 49-point Clippers victory. The effort added to his eye-opening start this season, with 70 points in 44 minutes spread over his two games. George has made all of his 21 free throws, 56% of his three-pointers and 58% of his shots from the field.
It’s made for a nearly seamless transition back to the court after nearly seven months of rehabilitation from surgeries on both shoulders. But such apparent ease is the exception created by one of the league’s smartest players, coach Doc Rivers said, one that belies the challenge ahead.
With few opportunities to practice until December, the Clippers will attempt to integrate George into lineups alongside injured starters Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley for the first time. For teammates, that means adjusting to shifting roles on the fly with few chances for a dress rehearsal.
Los Angeles is amid a seven-game run in which it will play every other day. The next time it plays after a two-day break is Dec. 6. The Clippers are expected to practice at least once this week before they leave Nov. 25 for a three-game trip, with Rivers saying their workaround could mean relying on shootarounds, which are less taxing than practices because they occur on the day of games, and shrinking the playbook until his rotations accrue more time.
Some Clippers downplayed the lack of practice time.
“You can have all the practice time in the world,” forward Patrick Patterson said, “but the only thing that matters is in-game situations. That’s the only way guys can get a rhythm.”
George’s first two games have overlapped with absences by Beverley (sore left calf) and Leonard (left knee contusion), with no guarantee either will play Monday when the Clippers host Oklahoma City. Second-year guard Landry Shamet also is out indefinitely because of a high-ankle sprain; he watched Saturday’s game with the aid of a crutch.
“There’s no way we can have continuity right now,” Rivers said. “We were talking about it the other day: We’ve had one live practice with Pat, Kawhi, Sham, Paul George on the floor — one — this season. I’m talking training camp, as well.”
Among the things they are seeking to figure out on the fly is defensive communication.
The Clippers weren’t on the same page defensively at times during the season’s first week but gradually tightened as players began speaking the same terminology. Then they struggled again in losses last week in Houston and New Orleans, allowing wide-open shots and layups on drives.
As a four-time NBA all-defense selection, George should create one of the league’s stingiest units alongside Beverley and Leonard on the perimeter, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t struggled at times in the interim, by his own admission, to keep up with ballhandlers, get over screens or keep from reaching on fouls.
“I had a lot of errors, from defense to bad passes,” George said Saturday. “I’m not going to play a perfect game. But I think in those moments I did have turnovers, those have to come in different ways. There were a lot of different plays I wish I could take back. But again, this is all fresh for me right now.”
Rivers isn’t overly concerned about how Leonard will play alongside George, and vice versa. They have similar skills, are willing to make plays for others and own a mutual admiration that brought them together this summer. Instead, Rivers will watch the other Clippers around them, both on the floor, with fewer shots and minutes to go around.
“Other guys got to figure it out, find different ways to be effective,” said forward Maurice Harkless. “If you’re running out in transition or cutting, whatever it is. We’re pros so we all got to figure out a way to work around those guys because they are unselfish players and they’ll be willing to pass the ball.”
The first signs of a minutes crunch have already emerged. After averaging 20 minutes during his first 10 games, all starts, forward Patrick Patterson has played an average of five during the last three. A starter ever since he was acquired in a trade last February, Shamet is a prime candidate to have his starting job usurped by George upon his return from injury.
Conversely, Harkless has played at least 24 minutes in each of his last three games, starting each time, after playing more than 19 minutes just twice in a seven-game span.
With George and Leonard shouldering so much of the load, it’s incumbent moving forward that the supporting cast “do the little things,” guard Rodney McGruder said.
“Try to make the game easier for them,” McGruder said. “We’re professionals. That’s what we do for a living. We just have to pay attention to the small details and just listen to them.”
VS. OKLAHOMA CITY
When: 7:30 p.m., Monday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570
Update: Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander return to face the Clippers (8-5) for the first time since the franchise traded them, five draft picks and two pick swaps in July in exchange for Paul George. Gallinari has averaged 19.0 points and 5.1 rebounds while making 43% of his three-pointers for Oklahoma City (5-7). Gilgeous-Alexander, who earned second-team all-rookie honors last season and now shares a backcourt with former Clipper Chris Paul, has averaged a team-high 20.4 points, plus 5.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Most impressive to Clippers staffers who have watched Gilgeous-Alexander’s development from afar this season is his increasingly dependable three-point shot, at 40% from behind the arc. “I don’t know if I’ve had a more favorite young player, like, he’s the best,” Rivers said of Gilgeous-Alexander.