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Clippers take aim at Bucks, who have had their number

Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks against Clippers center Ivica Zubac.
Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks against Clippers center Ivica Zubac during a game last season in Milwaukee.
(Morry Gash / Associated Press)

Only two opponents are unbeaten against the Clippers while handing them multiple losses since Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joined forces a season and a half ago.

Brooklyn is 3-0, and, short of meeting the Nets in the NBA Finals, there’ll be no opportunity the rest of this season for the Clippers to notch their first win in a matchup of the George and Leonard era.

The other team is Milwaukee, which swept both matchups against the Clippers last season when their meetings were billed as potential Finals previews. Each ultimately had little to show for their championship aspirations after second-round postseason exits. This season, both franchises have remained near the top of their conferences while staying under the radar after retooling in the offseason.

“It is always fun playing against Milwaukee,” said George, who played in one of the two matchups last season, after Friday’s 119-99 victory in Memphis. “They had our number last year. And so, you know, we remember that. We’re feeling we can match up with them.”

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Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks’ two-time most valuable player, has averaged 28.9 points, 11.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists while making 8.0 field goals per game inside five feet from the basket, the second-highest average this season behind New Orleans’ Zion Williamson. Antetokounmpo has shot 76% within that distance, third-highest in the NBA among the 54 players who have averaged at least five shots per game that close to the hoop.

Like Antetokounmpo, Leonard has posted numbers close to or exceeding career bests but isn’t among bettors’ top four favorites for MVP, according to odds from Covers.

After a disappointing performance in Thursday’s loss against Memphis, the Clippers looked like a different team in Friday’s 119-99 win over the Grizzlies.

The Clippers’ All-Star forward has averaged 26.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists while shooting 39.2% on three-pointers, the second-highest mark of his career.

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“I think it’s because I don’t know whether he’s not flashy to people,” George said. “But I mean, he’s effective when you talk about a guy who is 100% committed to winning and winning at all costs. You got to take that into account. The MVP is about the most valuable player. And this team wouldn’t be where we are at without Kawhi on that floor.

“… It is almost calming having him on the floor knowing whenever things get rocky, teams make runs, he’s the guy that kind of just settles things and kind of just on his own slows the game down. He does a really good job of just controlling the game.”

Milwaukee (20-13) is third in the Eastern Conference after four consecutive victories, and with one more will tie their season-long winning streak. Antetokounmpo has led his team in scoring, rebounding and assists 14 times this season. The Bucks will have the Clippers’ full attention — eventually.

“I’ll be honest, we literally haven’t spoken one single word about the Bucks yet,” guard Lou Williams said Friday. “We’ve been taking a game-to-game approach, we haven’t really had an opportunity to lock into those guys, and so the only time I see the Bucks is when they’re on national television.”

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No passing fancy

As pleased as Clippers (24-11) coach Tyronn Lue was to see forward Nicolas Batum make three of his five three-pointers Friday — the first time he’d made multiple three-pointers in his last seven games — Lue felt Batum had passed up three or four other opportunities to shoot.

“We want him to take those shots because when he doesn’t shoot it, we end up getting a worse shot,” Lue said. “In the flow of the offense when the ball comes to him, he has to take those shots.”

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Batum isn’t the only player to whom Lue has preached a shoot-first mentality that’s backed up by results: The Clippers lead the league in points (37.8) and accuracy (44.9%) on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Guard Luke Kennard lost his place in the nine- and sometimes 10-man rotation because he hasn’t been aggressive enough, while another guard, Patrick Beverley, has flourished under the same dictate, shooting a career-high 42% on four three-pointers per game.

“I know everybody, they see me and they just think I’m this defensive guy, and that’s all I can provide is defense,” Beverley said earlier this month. “This coaching staff sees a little bit more in me, man, and I just want to, you know, don’t let them down.”

UP NEXT

AT MILWAUKEE

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When: 12:30 p.m. PST, Sunday

On the air: TV: ABC; Radio: 570, 1330

Update: Offensive success for the Bucks on Sunday won’t hinge on beating their defender to the rim off the dribble. They rank in the top 10 in points on catch-and-shoot chances, pull-ups, post-ups and from the elbow. Their catch-and-shoot accuracy ranks third, behind only Brooklyn and the first-place Clippers.


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