During a break between Monday’s third and fourth quarters, a fan standing a few rows behind the home bench at Staples Center began waving a red Clippers T-shirt originally bought to support Chris Paul.
But Paul was now on the floor with Oklahoma City, and the T-shirt had been altered to reflect L.A.’s new face. The “Paul” nameplate was now followed by a piece of paper featuring “George.” A similarly altered “1” was taped before Paul’s former No. 3, to complete the look of George’s No. 13 jersey.
That shirt underscored a larger truth about the Clippers’ 90-88 victory against the Thunder. Good luck finding two teams more interconnected than these. Like the T-shirt’s customizer, the teams have taken parts and pieces of each other to create their current forms.
There was George guarding the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander while Danilo Gallinari waited in the corner -- the two players, plus a boatload of draft picks, the Clippers dealt for George last July.
There were Clippers stars, past and present, dueling in the final minute. Gallinari’s three-pointer leveled the score at 86 with 52 seconds to play, and when George tried backing down Paul on the next possession, he lost his dribble. Paul then baited George into a foul and made two free throws for a two-point Thunder lead.
Out of a timeout, George made a 26-foot three-pointer for an 89-88 lead with 25.9 seconds left.
“I just felt the play would get him open,” coach Doc Rivers said. “With his size I was looking at who can get a good shot off. …. The fact that he made it was great for him and great for us down the road.”
With 7.3 seconds left Rivers challenged, and won, a reach foul called on Maurice Harkless on a drive by Gallinari, a 93.8% free-throw shooter who would have been headed to the line. Instead the foul was rescinded. The Thunder (5-8) retained possession and Gallinari got the ball again, driving left around a screen before missing a potential game-winner from just inside the arc.
“It was a good look,” Gallinari said. “Those shots I need to make.”
Unlike George’s first two games this season, in which he scored 70 points in 44 minutes, this 18-point performance wasn’t effortless. He committed seven turnovers and double teams forced the ball out of his hands.
One recipient was Ivica Zubac, the center who was traded last February for Mike Muscala, a current Thunder reserve who, before he was swapped for Zubac, was briefly a Clipper himself. Another was Patrick Beverley, who two years ago was part of the trade for Paul, Oklahoma City’s current point guard.
Two other parts of the Paul deal, Montrezl Harrell (28 points, 12 rebounds) and Lou Williams (11 points, nine assists), were invaluable off the bench for the Clippers (9-5), and they were later joined in the lineup by Patrick Patterson, the forward who was bought out in Oklahoma City in July and signed with L.A. in August.
A notable absence, for the third consecutive game, was Kawhi Leonard (left knee bruise), who committed to the Clippers in free agency after learning they had agreed to a trade with Oklahoma City for George. Days earlier, Leonard told Clippers executives he wanted to play with George. Around the same time, the Thunder learned George wanted to be traded.
Paul scored 22 points. Gallinari scored 14 points and Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 11 points, five turnovers and zero assists in their first game since they, and five future draft picks and two future pick swaps, were dealt late on the night of July 5. The Clippers played a tribute video to both in the first quarter, and Gallinari raised his arm to acknowledge cheers.
Gallinari played his best season in years last season for the Clippers. Gilgeous-Alexander, even in just one year here, was beloved. Hearing he was part of the deal made Rivers “sad,” the coach said.
“Those are the guys that give you life in coaching,” Rivers said. “There are times when you just want to quit and retire, go home, and then there’s times you want to coach forever, and guys like Shai allow that. It was really nice coaching him.”
Rivers said he thought about the “basketball gods” when Gallinari’s potential game-winning attempt was in the air — payback for the summer’s trade, perhaps.
But it misfired, only for George to grab the rebound and be fouled with one second to play. His final free throw created just enough separation on a night when the rosters stayed connected until the very end.