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Brooklyn’s Big 3 too much for Clippers’ dynamic duo and cuts short their comeback

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tries to block a shot by Nets guard Kyrie Irving.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tries to block a shot by Nets guard Kyrie Irving on Tuesday night in Brooklyn.
(Kathy Willens / Associated Press)

There was a stretch Tuesday when Paul George believed the Clippers’ defense looked less like the unit that ranked 24th in the NBA through the first 10 games and more like the one that had risen to fifth in the last 11.

The Clippers’ hands were in the faces of Brooklyn’s shooters. Their bodies blocked the path of the Nets’ drives.

And hardly any of it mattered.

As soon as they closed one opportunity, another opened with just the flick of a pass, the ball bouncing between a collection of scorers unmatched in the league: Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden.

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“As good as defense as we played all night,” George said with a hint of resignation after a 124-120 road loss, “the fact of the matter is they have some of the best [isolation] players in the world. … It was almost like each one of them took turns making a shot.”

Many nights this season, it has been George and Kawhi Leonard whose scoring abilities overwhelmed opponents no matter how well they have stuck to a good game plan.

On Tuesday, the Clippers were on the receiving end of such a performance. Over the last eight minutes, in a game that sparked thoughts of what a playoff series between two franchises with championship aspirations could look like, Harden, Irving and Durant combined to score 25 of their team’s final 27 points to hand the Clippers their first loss with both Leonard and George in the lineup since Jan. 8. They fell to 3-2 on their six-game trip.

“We know they’re in contention to meet us down the line, so we wanted to make an impression,” Irving said after scoring 39 points. “And we did that.”

The Brooklyn Nets feature three of the top 17 scorers in the NBA and the Clippers have two high-voltage players of their own, plus some firepower off the bench.

Durant finished with 28 points and Harden 23, and the three stars, who have played together just five times since Harden’s arrival from Houston in mid-January, combined to score 29 of Brooklyn’s 36 fourth-quarter points.

It was enough to blunt a Clippers performance that, against perhaps any other team, might have secured their 11th win in their last 12 games. The Clippers took 20 more shots, committed nine fewer turnovers and received 33 points from Leonard and 26 from George.

This was a matchup the world wanted to see, George said Sunday, and it delivered. All that was missing for a playoff-type atmosphere, he said, was fans in an empty Barclays Center.

“You don’t play those teams very often,” said Nicolas Batum, who scored 21 points in his first game back from a groin injury.

Their defense did “a good job,” in coach Tyronn Lue’s estimation, for most of the game. It helped built a 12-point first-quarter lead. It staved off Brooklyn’s scoring during a critical stretch in the fourth quarter that turned a 10-point hole with 1minute 55 seconds remaining into just a one-point deficit with 24 seconds left.

But this was the lesson of Tuesday. It is unlikely the Clippers (16-6) will soon meet another team with as much raw firepower as the Nets (14-9), who have led the NBA in offensive rating since Harden’s arrival. Leave any of the league’s elite scorers an inch of room and they will exploit it. For all of the big strides the Clippers’ defense has taken since Jan. 10, when a seven-game winning streak began, there are so many more little details yet to master.

Lue has what some consider to be a near-photographic memory. But even he could not remember what exactly led to a 13-0 Brooklyn run midway through the final quarter; it happened so fast.

“We had some bad mistakes out there,” Leonard said. “Fouling shooters, just giving them points. You know, they’re already great scorers. … Some of our pick-up points were messed up on the defensive end. But that was pretty much it in the second half.”

The Clippers, who ranked only behind the Nets in halfcourt offense efficiency since mid-January, bemoaned the moments that could have changed the outcome offensively as well. They made just 45% of their shots inside the paint to Brooklyn’s 64%.

Focusing on exploiting Brooklyn’s defensive switching by scoring in isolation situations was a sound strategy early. Guarded by the much smaller Irving in the first quarter, Leonard found Batum for a pair of three-pointers. Batum, who was supposed to play up to 25 minutes in his first game back from a groin injury that cost him one game, instead played 38.

But it also took away the ball movement that has become the Clippers’ signature under Lue at times. They finished with 21 assists — only seven more than Harden had by himself.

Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points to lead the Clippers to a 129-115 win over the Knicks on Sunday in New York, and he got plenty of help.

“We got caught in their style of play,” George said. “We did have a lot of possessions where we played iso ball; we thought we had matchups that we liked and kind of stalled our offense out with those matchups.”

George attempted just one free throw, a fact he believed was “disrespectful” because of the contact he felt he’d drawn. The no-calls had an effect on his rhythm, leaving George to settle for more jump shots than drives.

“We talk about playing through the officiating, no excuses, and some calls should’ve went his way but it didn’t, so he’s just gotta keep playing,” Lue said. “I thought he got his composure back in the second half and he played through it, so we’ve got some learning lessons for us.”


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