With eight seconds remaining in regulation Wednesday, and his Clippers tied with Boston at 97 points apiece, coach Doc Rivers threw his palms up in frustration.
The offensive possession unfolding in front of him looked nothing like the play he’d drawn up.
Instead of the off-ball action that Clippers forward Paul George and guard Lou Williams were supposed to begin at eight seconds, George sprinted to a corner almost as soon as the ball was inbounded with 13 seconds on the clock. Alone and looking as though he’d been stood up, Williams ran into unoccupied space beyond the three-point arc instead.
The play was always intended for Kawhi Leonard to take the last shot, Rivers said. But now it was really all on Leonard, who probed for room, 27 feet from the basket, against the one-on-one defense of Boston’s Marcus Smart.
With seven seconds left, Rivers bent over, appearing in agony. At six seconds, he leaned back on the scorer’s table, a spectator like everyone else inside Staples Center.
“We really messed the play up,” he said.
Leonard’s three-pointer went into the cylinder before popping out, and the Clippers entered overtime, which they left with a 107-104 victory over the Celtics. But it was the fourth quarter’s final 13 seconds that served as a pure distillation of the Clippers right now, displaying both their growing pains as they integrate George with Leonard — Wednesday marked their first time playing together this season — and their vast potential should they continue to figure it out.
The play began all wrong — “completely broken,” Rivers said — and yet, the ball was still in the hands of a two-time most valuable player of the NBA Finals, with the option of passing to a five-time All-NBA forward (George), the all-time top scoring reserve (Williams), a career 37% three-point shooter (Patrick Beverley) or one of the league’s most efficient scorers (Montrezl Harrell).
“I don’t care about who gets shots,” George said. “Kawhi don’t care about who gets shots. We’re both willing passers and we need everybody. This is not a two-headed monster, we need everybody.
“I’m not afraid and I’m not scared to say that I’ll lean on those guys on a nightly basis.”
With five scorers on the floor, the lineup the Clippers used to close the fourth quarter outscored Boston by 10 points in 10 minutes together.
“If we just trust the pass, the ball will find the open guy and the open guy will make the shot,” Rivers said. “I thought we did that down the stretch. Now, I didn’t think we did that most the game, I thought we were trying to make a lot of plays instead of making the simple play, but once we started doing that it was great.”
The attention drawn by George and Leonard left wide-open corner opportunities for Beverley, in particular. An 18% shooter on three-pointers this season, Beverley was intentionally left open by the Celtics, who gambled with double teams on either Leonard or George. Beverley responded by making four three-pointers, his last with 43 seconds to play in overtime providing a five-point lead.
“I came off one pick and roll, I was so open, I didn’t know what to do,” Beverley said. “I guess everybody was waiting to see that lineup out there, and it worked. The paint was so open, they worried about Trez, worried about Kawhi, worry about Lou, worry about PG .... and of course, if I was a coach, I’d leave me open all the time and fortunately they were able to go in tonight.”
Rivers could not remember a time when two stars had spent such little time on the court together before playing in a game, and the seams showed. At times, the Clippers appeared unsure who should grab the offensive controls. Thirteen of the Clippers’ 23 turnovers came during George’s and Leonard’s 27 minutes together.
“It’s still tough, we’re both kind of on a minutes restriction, so it’s hard to get a flow with one another,” Leonard said. “Just knowing the plays, knowing each other’s spots, and then the language on the defensive end. Just repetition. That’s what we need right now.”
If Wednesday represented something of a floor in the George and Leonard union, it also led others to wonder about its ceiling. The Clippers outscored Boston by 11 points when George and Leonard were on the floor, despite the turnovers, miscommunication and the fact Boston has been playing some of the league’s best basketball.
“Y’all expect us to be at a certain level but we know we’re going to get there,” George said. “Fact of the matter is we’re winning as we’re learning.”
Rivers saw the learning process begin as soon as Leonard’s shot rimmed out to end the fourth quarter. Aware the play hadn’t been executed as designed, George found Rivers in the break before overtime and they talked over what had gone wrong.
“You could see them when they all walked off the floor, they knew,” Rivers said. “Again, trial and error.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket, ESPN; Radio: 570
Update: Since scoring 47 points against the Clippers (10-5) on Nov. 13, Houston’s James Harden has scored 44, 49, 36 and 27 points in his last four games to raise his season scoring average to 38.3 points per game. The last time these teams met, Rockets (11-4) guard Austin Rivers implored officials to assess a fourth-quarter technical foul on his father, Clippers coach Doc Rivers, and Houston guard Russell Westbrook questioned the defensive skill of Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, saying, “He don’t guard nobody, man. It’s just running around, doing nothing.”