Doc Rivers’ eyes had not deceived him.
The halftime box score the Clippers coach stared at Tuesday night at Staples Center was, in fact, accurate: His team had made 50% of its shots, including nine three-pointers, in the first two quarters. And still, the Clippers led Portland, which had made 51% of its shots, by only three points.
Wasn’t it only two days before that Rivers had said his team’s defense was further along than its offense?
“We just said something’s going to give, one way or another,” Rivers said of his halftime message. “Either we’re going to start defending or we’re going to have a tough night.”
They chose the former.
Chastened after a porous first half, the Clippers closed off Portland’s driving lanes to the rim, took away good three-point looks and didn’t allow Carmelo Anthony to add to his charmed beginning with the Trail Blazers over the course of the final 24 minutes en route to a 117-97 victory.
“Just imposed our will on the defensive end,” said forward Montrezl Harrell, whose campaign for the NBA’s top reserve continued after 26 points and nine rebounds, with no turnovers, in 30 minutes.
In their last game at Staples Center before beginning a six-game trip, the Clippers (16-6) improved to 13-1 at home. Paul George scored 25 points and Patrick Patterson scored 19 off the bench, with George making six three-pointers and Patterson making five.
Though the Clippers have outscored opponents during first, second and fourth quarters this season, they ranked 18th in the league in third-quarter plus-minus entering Tuesday, outscored by an average of one point per game. That usually has set up a need for a dramatic fourth quarter, and the Clippers have become one of the NBA’s best teams in clutch situations.
Such late heroics were not needed against Portland, which pulled its starters with 7:41 to play trailing 102-80.
“We played defense,” George said.
That cushion was built during the third quarter, which the Clippers won by 10 after Anthony, the Western Conference’s reigning player of the week, and the team’s celebrated backcourt of CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard made two of their 11 combined field goals.
“They’re great players, we’re just sending a lot of people at them,” Rivers said of Portland’s dynamic backcourt, which had averaged more than 49 points together entering Tuesday. “We’re doubling a lot, we’re able to switch with bigger guys that can move their feet.”
Anthony finished with nine points. McCollum led Portland (8-13) with 20 points and Lillard added 16, and they combined to make 14 of 32 field goal attempts, including two each of their combined 15 three-point shots.
The Clippers built off their blueprint from their Nov. 7 victory against Portland, in which Lillard missed all four attempts in which he was guarded by Maurice Harkless, the former Trail Blazers forward.
Lillard won several matchups Tuesday against Harkless, including hitting a deep three-pointer in the opening quarter when Harkless didn’t extend his 7-foot wingspan in time to contest an attempt. But in the third quarter, Lillard missed all five shots he took, and Harkless was usually in the vicinity.
“I don’t know how many teams you can put your power forward on the other team’s point guard,” Rivers said. “Because of our size we’re able to do that.”
Without JaMychal Green, who did not play since bruising his tailbone in Sunday’s victory, Patterson played 26 minutes — double his season average — but was a release valve when things went wrong offensively. Kawhi Leonard scored 11 points, making three of 15 shots, but when his drives were cut off in the second quarter, he found Patterson open in the corner twice for three-pointers.
“Teammates just found me,” Patterson said. “And my shot seemed to fall.”