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Clippers click as three starters return: 5 takeaways from season-best win over Jazz

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, fouls Utah Jazz center Derrick Favors on a shot attempt Feb. 19, 2021.
The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard tries to block a shot by the Jazz’s Derrick Favors. Leonard, who was called for a foul, scored 29 points in his return after missing three games with a bruised left leg.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

The Clippers had to wait for it.

Four weeks since their usual starting lineup had last played together. A fourth quarter that lasted nearly 50 minutes. A few nail-biting final possessions, after watching Utah’s Donovan Mitchell make one difficult three-pointer to keep the Jazz close — then another. Late fouls that allowed Utah a constant march to the free-throw line in the final minutes.

Finally it was over: a 116-112 win that was indisputably the Clippers’ best this season.

With Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum (concussion) back, the Clippers (22-9) prevailed in the first true look at how a pair of Western Conference contenders stacked up.

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Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum will return to the lineup Friday night in a rematch against the Utah Jazz.

The first-place Jazz (24-6), who also played with a full lineup after Mike Conley returned from a six-game absence, lost for just the second time in 22 games, unable to overcome not just the return of the Clippers’ two leading scorers but also clutch fourth-quarter performances by their role players, too.

“Playing the No. 1 team, you got to go out and beat them, they’re not going to give it to you,” said Patrick Beverley, who scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and helped the Clippers win for a fifth time in their last six games. “And I think that we came out with that mind-set tonight for sure.”

Leonard scored 29 points and deflated Utah’s chance to rally when, with 46 seconds left, he grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds. After nine points in the opening quarter, George finished with 15. Batum didn’t score in 31 minutes. Coach Tyronn Lue called the trio “rusty” in their return, but their presence kept the Clippers from running out of gas as they had in the final minutes of an 18-point loss to Utah two days earlier.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 116-112 victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday night at Staples Center.

“They’re the best team in the NBA right now, record-wise,” Lue said. “We got our guys back, and we wanted to win this game and guys went out and did a hell of a job.”

Five takeaways from the game:

Cold from three

In so many respects, the game was as advertised. The stars had their moments. Neither team could pull away. But this was unexpected: way-off three-point shooting. Since Utah’s red-hot run began five weeks ago, it ranked third in the NBA in three-point accuracy (40%), while the Clippers were first (42%). Because of a mix of missed open looks and strong defense, neither team could rely on that strength. The Clippers made 10 of 30 threes while Utah made 12 of 34.

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Yet three-pointers taken by a small-ball lineup that played the final eight minutes keyed the Clippers’ victory. After his team had missed 11 consecutive three-pointers to open the second half, Marcus Morris made two in the fourth quarter to push the lead to seven with four minutes to play. Beverley then followed with a pair of threes.

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Next Mann up

Having Leonard, George and Batum back allowed the Clippers to start their usual lineup for the first time since Jan. 24. It also revealed another rotation change that has been brewing ever since. As the second guard to check in off the bench, Terance Mann leapfrogged Luke Kennard in Lue’s 10-man rotation. Mann, a second-round pick in his second season, has impressed with his doggedness defensively and ability to attack the rim, if his jump shot remains something opponents largely do not fear. Kennard was one of the Clippers’ prizes of the offseason but has yet to shoot and play aggressively with enough consistency.

The Clippers' Paul George, left, celebrates with Marcus Morris after making a first-half shot Feb. 19, 2021.
The Clippers’ Paul George, left, celebrates with Marcus Morris after making a first-half shot. George returned after missing seven games because of swelling in a bone of a toe on his right foot.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

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Measuring minutes

Just because everyone is healthy again doesn’t mean the roster was operating at full capacity, as Batum and George played a restricted amount of minutes. It was Lue, before tipoff, who noted his goal was “slowly easing our guys in to it, make sure that we’re cautious and not trying to overplay these guys because we want to win the game so bad.” The restriction appeared to hurt the Clippers late in the second quarter. With George, who had played nearly 13 minutes, off the floor for the half’s final six minutes, a 14-point Clippers lead was trimmed to eight at halftime. Facing the NBA’s hottest team over the last five weeks, every bit of cushion mattered for the Clippers. Four minutes into the second half, their lead was down to two.

Third-quarter heroics

Just as Mitchell’s limited playing time because of two fouls in his first four minutes handicapped the Jazz during the first half, the presence of the young guard was instrumental in helping Utah rally. His foul trouble was an issue early because with Conley playing on his own minutes limit, Utah went without a true point guard for stretches. Mitchell scored 12 points in the third while largely running a high pick-and-roll, but that production was matched by Leonard’s own 12 points in the quarter, including 10 in the final five minutes during a 16-8 Clippers run that gave them the lead entering the final quarter. Mitchell then scored 15 in the fourth quarter and finished with 35.

Joel Embiid had 50 points in the 76ers’ victory over the Bulls, while Jamal Murray also scored a career-best 50 in lifting the Nuggets over the Cavaliers.

Center of attention

The benefit of having a center like Serge Ibaka is his ability to draw centers away from the basket out of respect for his three-point threat. But as Ibaka was making just one of five threes, Utah’s Rudy Gobert could sag off and roam defensively. Ibaka has made five three-pointers in his last eight games, shooting 24% over that span, and with his backup Ivica Zubac also a non-factor offensively Friday, the Clippers opted for a small-ball lineup with Morris at center starting with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter. The decision was critical in deciding the victory.

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After 23 points and 20 rebounds in Wednesday’s win, Gobert had eight points and 15 rebounds Friday.

“We might be small in size but we’re not small in heart, for sure,” Beverley said. “We understand Rudy Gobert is, you know, he’s one of the best defensive players in the NBA by protecting the rim, and going to that small lineup, we want to kind of get him out the paint.”


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