Third quarter a charm: 5 takeaways from the Clippers’ win Sunday

Clippers forwards Marcus Morris (8) and Kawhi Leonard (2) high-five after a basket against the Pacers.
Clippers forwards Marcus Morris (8) and Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrate after a basket against the Pacers on Sunday at Staples Center.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Missing backup guard Lou Williams, who was sidelined for a second consecutive game because of a balky hip, and starting center Serge Ibaka because of an illness the team said was not related to COVID-19, the Clippers still had more in reserve than the equally short-handed Indiana Pacers on Sunday.

Five takeaways from the Clippers’ 129-96 victory at Staples Center that improves them to 10-4, the league’s second-best record:

1. Kawhi Leonard’s strong third quarter Sunday wasn’t a one-off.

Indiana knew it had to contain Leonard and Paul George if it had any chance to win and they threw a bit of everything at them during the first half.

“They tried to junk the game up, triangle-and-two, box-and-one,” coach Tyronn Lue said of the Pacers’ defensive schemes. “Things we haven’t seen all year.”

Leonard couldn’t have been surprised. Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren was an assistant during his lone season in Toronto, when Raptors coach Nick Nurse became known for experimenting with little-used defenses. It led to the Pacers “denying me and PG everywhere,” Leonard said. But eventually Leonard, who had only five shots in the first half, got free for 11 points and five assists in the third quarter, and the timing was no shock: Strong third quarters are becoming something of a second-half habit for Leonard, who over his last five games is averaging 12 points and just one turnover per third quarter while shooting 66%. The Clippers have outscored opponents by an average of seven points during those third quarters.


Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren, who worked with Kawhi Leonard in Toronto, got another reminder of Leonard’s abilities in the Clippers’ 129-96 win.

Jan. 17, 2021

2. Luke Kennard appears to be getting more comfortable.

Even though “the team has been on him, the coaches have been on him, just about being aggressive,” Lue said this week of Kennard, it can appear as though the backup guard is weighing in real-time on each possession what the “right” play is. Kennard is no stranger to playing aggressively — he’s Ohio’s leading all-time high school scorer, beating out some former prep star from Akron named LeBron James — but he’s never played on an NBA roster with this much shooting and wants to fit in.

Sunday, however, was perhaps his most assertive performance this season. Kennard finished with a season-high 20 points on 12 shots. The absence of Williams didn’t necessarily contribute to it, either; their minutes rarely overlap anymore. This was Kennard just taking his teammates’ advice and finding seams in the defense. Kennard made four of his eight three-pointers, but also took two mid-range shots and two at the rim.

3. The Clippers went cold from deep and still overwhelmed the Pacers with their outside shooting.

Bjorkgren had warned before tipoff that the Pacers had to slow down the Clippers’ passes, and the numerous supply of unguarded catch-and-shoot opportunities that have resulted from them, the kind of shots the Clippers have converted into points better than any team in the league.

It was jarring to see the Clippers make just three of their 12 shots from deep in the quarter.

Yet amid a season in which the Clippers have made a league-high 44% of their shots from deep, the cold streak didn’t last. They made eight from deep in the third quarter, 19 overall (on nearly 49% shooting) and the Clippers have now made at least 15 three-pointers in a franchise-record four consecutive games.

4. Lue told reserves no longer part of the regular rotation to “stay ready.” So far, they have.

The Clippers moved Ivica Zubac from the bench to the starting lineup for the first time this season to replace Ibaka, and by doing that, Lue faced a choice of who to plug in at backup center. Instead of Mfiondu Kabengele, Lue went with Patrick Patterson for the first time in five games. The veteran struggles to guard offensive players with a quick first step, but the Clippers know that. The bet is he’ll contribute offensively by making a few shots and forcing defenders to stay honest when he strays beyond the three-point arc. Less than a minute apart during the third quarter, he made three-pointers from the right corner to bump the Clippers’ lead from 19 to 22, and then to 25.


His ability to come in cold and make three of six shots for 10 points followed Reggie Jackson’s steady work as an interim starter Friday against Sacramento. They are just two data points but lend credibility to a point mentioned by a few players Sunday: That players on the roster, even those most affected by the tightening of Lue’s rotation, have still bought into the coach’s direction.

5. Marcus Morris believes the Clippers’ “energy is way better this season.”

When George drove into the lane and cocked back before a right-handed dunk over Justin Holiday in the first quarter, Clippers reserves — and even a few coaches — leapt from their seats, a celebration Morris believed was a microcosm of a roster that is happier for one another after last season’s failed chemistry experiment.

“Think guys are buying in, guys are enjoying playing the game,” Morris said.

The dunk was also another chapter in George’s comeback story. In 13 games George has averaged 24.8 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.1 assists.

Added Morris: “He’s definitely playing MVP basketball.”