Without stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, Clippers still outsparkle Cavaliers
Kawhi Leonard stood in front of five Clippers teammates during a timeout Sunday night, pointing his finger to emphasize his words. For the forward who had scored 33 and 36 points in his last two games, it was the extent of his contributions on this night.
Leonard did not play because of a contusion in his lower left leg, an injury that doubled the Clippers’ superstar void. Paul George spent the game stationed only a few feet from Leonard in a wine-colored tracksuit, out of uniform for a fifth consecutive game because of swelling in a bone in a toe.
Playing without two leading, All-Star-caliber scorers is usually an ominous sign.
On their way to a seventh straight defeat, the Cavaliers allowed 70 points by halftime, then were forced to call a timeout just 40 seconds into the second half after allowing a three-pointer and layup to Patrick Beverley. The Clippers’ confidence only grew from there. Minutes later, Beverley turned around to face the Cavaliers’ bench before his three-pointer from the corner had even gone in.
Before the fourth quarter even began with the Clippers leading by 18, Lou Williams had collected his first double-double since 2019. He started and finished with 30 points and 10 assists, and Serge Ibaka scored a season-high 21 points and added nine rebounds and six assists.
“Him and Serge were really on point together” running the pick-and-roll together, Lue said.
“If I feel like his man is too worried about Serge, I’d be a little more aggressive coming off the screen,” Williams said. “And if his guy is worried about me, I’ll try and make a play. That’s just basketball and being able to read and develop that over time, and Serge is a really good screener.
“He puts himself in a position to be open, create two-on-one opportunities, and we just got to take advantage of it. So, tonight was a great night for us.”
The Clippers (20-8) have their own concerns right now. But on this night, those of the Cavaliers (10-18) were the greater hindrance.
“I like what we’re doing right now,” Lue said. “We’ve just got to continue building off of [it] but we have a long way to go both offensively and defensively.”
Five takeaways from the Clippers’ third consecutive victory:
1. Lue said he was uncertain when Leonard might return from the injury, which occurred during last week’s two-game road trip. Presumably, the team understood the injury would leave it short-handed soon after returning to Los Angeles, given the Clippers recalled two-way forward Amir Coffey from the G League’s bubble in Orlando, Fla., where he had played as recently as Friday night, in order to bolster their roster. The injury cost Leonard the chance to play in what would have been his third back-to-back this season. Before this year, he hadn’t played on consecutive days since 2017.
2. George worked out on the court before tipoff, and though it consisted of mostly set shots and was hardly at game speed, it was an indication nonetheless that the swelling in his right foot has improved enough to allow him to return to the court.
3. Before forward Marcus Morris ran back on defense after making his second three-pointer, he stared down at the spot where he had launched the shot and pointed at it. But the right wing is hardly the only place where he feels comfortable behind the arc. After making six of his eight three-point tries Friday against Chicago, Morris made four of his six against the Cavaliers in scoring 23 points, his most in 51 games as a Clipper, and continuing his career-best 48% shooting from deep.
“When you’ve been gone for so long it is kind of tough to step right back in and play well,” Lue said of Morris, who missed the season’s first eight games while recovering from a “a little bit of tendinitis” in a knee. “So we’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball.
“And, of course, he can shoot the basketball, so he’s been great and he’s just been putting the work in, and you see the results.”
Highlights from the Clippers’ 128-111 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday night at Staples Center.
4. Ahead of the NBA’s March 25 trade deadline, the Clippers will do their due diligence on finding potential upgrades for a roster that expects to play deep into the postseason. The backcourt has long been seen as one area where they will kick the tires. But as of now, given their paucity of trade assets and financial inflexibility underneath the hard cap, it’s difficult to imagine being able to find an available guard better at scoring or getting downhill than Williams. He has begun to find his rhythm alongside a revamped second unit with Morris and Ivica Zubac and is playing his most consistent basketball in nearly one calendar year.
5. Along with George’s workout, one of the night’s most encouraging signs was the first-half finish by Luke Kennard. After signing a lucrative, four-year extension in December, the reserve in recent days had played so unevenly that he had been leapfrogged in the bench rotation by second-year guard Terance Mann. Kennard had missed four of his five shot attempts when he drilled his last two three-point tries before halftime. It wasn’t only that he made them, but that his teammates looked for him when they easily could have kept the ball for their own open look. It’s a sign the team still has confidence in Kennard. Now, what can he do with it?
When: 7 p.m., Monday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket, NBA TV; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: The Heat (11-15) already have faced a Clippers team without George and Leonard once this season — and lost. That defeat Jan. 28 was Miami’s fifth consecutive. The Heat have gone 5-3 since.
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