Some 138 days after they walked the floors of a Las Vegas casino together, celebrating the Clippers’ sudden additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and recording it all on social media in real-time, Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams were together again late Wednesday night inside a Staples Center tunnel.
Beverley had stormed off the court, curling his arms toward his hips like a bodybuilder, mid-pose. He screamed, walking toward the locker room, and fans lining the railings above him answered with their own.
Then he stopped a beat and turned around, waiting for Williams, who was trailing by a few seconds and smiled when he saw Beverley. Just like the night in Vegas, they smiled, embraced and sauntered into the night having pulled off something unexpected.
The Clippers’ 107-104 victory in overtime against Boston will be remembered for the debut of Leonard and George, who played together for the first time in the Clippers’ 15th game. Leonard finished with 17 points, and George had 25 points to go with eight assists.
But if the night was about seeing the all-NBA duo for the first time, it was also won because of the Clippers’ old reliables.
Williams scored five points and forced a turnover during the final three minutes of regulation that helped push the game into overtime. Beverley played like a man electrocuted, with 14 points, a career-high 16 points and seven assists.
“He literally single-handedly willed that game with his effort, his rebounding, making plays,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He was phenomenal.”
Before tipoff, Rivers said he had no idea what to expect from the first minutes of Leonard and George, considering he’d seen the combination in the same lineup for the first time only hours earlier, at the team’s shoot-around.
Each had their highlights, no more so than Leonard clinching the victory with his long-armed block of Celtics guard Kemba Walker’s potential game-tying shot from the corner as time expired.
“[Walker] lost a normal person on that cut,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He got enough separation to get it off against most of the league. The problem is, that guy’s not normal. He’s not most of the league. And he made a great play to block it.”
Boston had won 11 of its last 12 games entering Wednesday, and boasted the NBA’s widest margin between how many points it scored and allowed per 100 possessions. They did not, in short, arrive at Staples Center to become a footnote to one of the most-anticipated debuts in Clippers history.
The night began with the kind of play Clippers fans had waited more than four months to see: Leonard stepping through a double-team beyond the three-point arc to find an open George for a three-pointer on the Clippers’ fourth offensive possession. Boston, meanwhile, missed its first 16 three-pointers. Walker, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics’ three leading scorers, were a combined 0 for 13 on shots outside of the paint in the first half, their rhythm off in part because of the length of George, Leonard and Maurice Harkless, all of whom possess wingspans 6-foot-11 or greater.
But the Celtics created more opportunities to score by grabbing offensive rebounds and not turning the ball over, and within 15 minutes led by six points.
The Clippers (10-5) have started 9-1 at home for only the third time in the last 14 seasons, despite turning the ball over 23 times and allowing the Celtics (11-3) to lead, 94-87, with 2:21 remaining in regulation.
But the Clippers began a 10-0 run over the next two minutes, with Williams capping the run with a three-pointer, steal and two free throws. The crowd’s significant pro-Boston faction quieted. Chants of “M-V-P!” for Williams began.
And then Boston’s Tatum dribbled into George, sending him tumbling and creating an open look at a three-pointer, which Tatum buried with 13.1 seconds to play for a 97-all tie. Rivers asked officials in vain for a push-off offensive foul on Tatum, then went back into his huddle and drew up a final play. Leonard’s three-pointer from 27 feet went halfway into the cylinder before popping out as time expired in regulation.
Leonard and George each produced moments of individual brilliance during their debuts without each other — Leonard led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring; George scored 70 points in his first 44 minutes. But the Clippers struggled to generate such highlights with them together. Rivers felt players were forcing the ball into certain players’ hands rather than trusting to let the offense flow.
“We got some kinks to work out,” Williams said.
The one trend Rivers believed he could count on from his team’s first 14 games without George and Leonard was a defense that could get “stops on call.” It came true down the stretch as Boston’s offense was locked up.
In overtime, leading 107-104, the Clippers gave the ball back to Boston with 18 seconds to play after Marcus Smart tapped a ball going out of bounds off of Leonard’s leg. After a heady foul by Beverley forced Boston to inbound with 1.6 seconds remaining, Stevens drew up a shot for Walker, but it never hit the rim, snuffed by Leonard.
“That was an ugly win,” Rivers said, “but it was beautiful.”