In the past decade, the Clippers said goodbye to three stars who brought them buzz and jettisoned an owner who brought bad headlines. They added a new owner, two new superstars and transformed from an NBA punchline to a contender with a puncher’s chance at a championship.
Amid all that change, it was fitting that one of their decade’s few constants re-emerged on its final day: a Clippers victory in Sacramento.
Los Angeles played without both Patrick Beverley, the locker room’s emotional core, and Lou Williams, the sparkplug reserve who is its third-leading scorer. Its two stars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, shot a combined 14 for 46 from the field. Reserve center Montrezl Harrell scored seven points, 12 fewer than his season average.
None of that could derail a 105-87 victory at Golden 1 Center on Tuesday afternoon that was the Clippers’ 14th consecutive in Sacramento, the NBA’s longest active road winning streak against a single opponent. Since the start of 2010, the Clippers are 17-4 in the state capital.
“We held them to 40 [points] in the first half, 47 in the second,” coach Doc Rivers said. “You can win a lot of games with your defense. It’s a great example.”
Fourteen of Leonard’s game-high 24 points were scored in the third quarter to help the Clippers (24-11) open a 19-point lead, but it was down to 11 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter. Yet the Kings’ opportunities to trim the deficit to single digits for the first time of the second half fizzled quickly. The Clippers switched to a 2-3 zone defense, disrupting the Kings’ offensive rhythm, and scored seven unanswered points over the next three minutes. The lead was back to 18 and fans eager to get a jump on their holiday plans left in waves. A few who stayed booed when it was over.
Maybe it was the Clippers making good on an early New Year’s resolution — not allowing their double-digit leads to slip away, as often happened in December.
“The randomness of [the zone] tonight was awesome because they didn’t see it all game,” said George, who had 21 points on six-for-25 shooting with 11 rebounds and nine assists. “The timing of it was perfect for how we closed.”
The Clippers’ role players starred, offsetting the shooting struggles of Leonard, George and Harrell. Forward Maurice Harkless had 12 points and seven rebounds, and the Clippers are 6-0 when he scores in double digits. Landry Shamet added nine points, making three of four three-pointers, center Ivica Zubac had eight points and 13 rebounds, and Derrick Walton Jr. scored a career-high 10 points as the first reserve off the bench.
“That’s why you pay everybody,” Rivers said. “You don’t pay like two or three guys. You pay everybody on the team. And everybody that came in was ready to play.”
By contrast the Kings’ depth provided little help. Kings center Richaun Holmes scored a team-high 22 points while Buddy Hield (20) was the only other teammate to score in double digits. One game after allowing Utah to shoot nearly 50% on three-pointers, the Clippers held the Kings to eight-for-28 shooting from beyond the arc.
“You saw some things in the last game … some things that we can apply to today, and I think the mindset rolled over,” Walton said. “No one was ever really worried about the offensive end tonight, we just wanted to continue to pile stops together.”
Without Beverley, whose sprained right wrist led him to miss the first of what Rivers said will be a “couple games, for sure,” the Clippers started Shamet for the first time since Dec. 14. Three minutes into the first quarter, though, he’d been whistled for two fouls and was replaced by Walton, whose role grew because Williams missed the game for the birth of his son.
Walton quickly earned two fouls as well, putting the backcourt in a precarious position given its lack of depth. Leonard and George picked up the play-making slack with seven assists in the first quarter, hitting cutting teammates for open looks when the Kings’ defense became too focused on the Clippers’ two stars.
The Kings (12-22) have changed owners, arenas and coaches in the past decade, but have not beaten the Clippers in their own building since March 19, 2013. More worrisome is that, after an eighth consecutive loss, they have not won since Dec. 15.
“They pushed us around out there,” Kings coach Luke Walton said, “and they had their way.”