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Clippers open second half looking for cohesion, improvement

Clippers' Paul George celebrates with teammates Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum.
Clippers’ Paul George celebrates with teammates Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum during the first quarter against the Orlando Magic on Jan. 29 in Orlando, Fla.
(Douglas P. DeFelice / Getty Images)

When Tyronn Lue coached in Cleveland, he liked to save some schemes and unveil them as a playoff surprise.

He has suggested he’ll do the same this season, his first leading the Clippers. Less than half of the offense has been installed, the coach has said. His full defensive hand has yet to be revealed.

Some of that has to do with Lue holding back. yet one of the bigger hurdles his team faced during the season’s first half was that their progress was often held back for reasons out of their control. The Clippers are one of only three teams thus far to play every game on their schedule, having avoided postponements from the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols, but when they’ve taken the court they’ve not always been whole. Kawhi Leonard has missed eight of the Clippers’ first 38 games, Patrick Beverley 10 and Paul George 11.

The Clippers are 14-5 when that trio, all former members of the league’s All-Defensive team, plays together and have scored 118 points per 100 possessions — 13 more than they’ve allowed.

The combination of Leonard and George has produced an 18-6 record with a team offensive rating of 123 — 17.5 points per 100 possessions more than they allow.

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The way Leonard and George played off one another during the first half, “putting the ball in their hands and making the right play, getting into the paint, either scoring the basketball or kicking it out for threes,” was ahead of schedule, Lue said.

With the signing of Blake Griffin, the Brooklyn Nets have supplanted the Lakers as the favorites to win the NBA title, according to BetOnline.ag.

“I think that’s very important going into the playoffs, so they’ve done a good job of that,” Lue said before last week’s All-Star break.

The Clippers are admittedly not a finished product — Lue wants his team to hunt defensive mismatches more efficiently on guard-guard pick-and-roll plays and generate more points off of turnovers in transition — but those stretches with Leonard and George, or that duo plus Beverley, have offered glimpses of the Clippers’ top-end potential.

It’s also evidence why, two weeks before the trade deadline, there is largely comfort within the team about the roster as currently constructed.

Of course, should the team choose to make smaller moves at or after the deadline, such as in the buyout market, instead of taking a big swing in a trade, as some believe could be the case, it will heavily trace back to the Clippers’ close proximity to the NBA’s hard cap and lack of overwhelmingly attractive trade assets.

As the Clippers begin the second half of their schedule Thursday against Golden State, Lue’s hopes of adding more wrinkles, and thus pushing his team closer to its full capabilities, hinge on having more stretches with stars available to play — the same core issue that held back last season’s team.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard shoots over Wizards center Robin Lopez.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard shoots over Washington Wizards center Robin Lopez in the first half at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

“We have a great 1-2 punch,” Lue said Wednesday. “I think, we’re definitely better defensively, we’re better offensively. And PG playing with that second unit has given us a great spark this year. So when one of those guys are out, it kind of messes our rotations up more than anything. But we need those guys to play.”

Playing short-handed has hurt the Clippers defensively more than offensively. The Clippers can usually backfill with capable shooters, if not players at the same level as shot creators. Of the 10 Clippers taking at least 2.8 three-pointers per game, eight are shooting 38% or better.

Finding defenders to compensate for the absences of George, Leonard and Beverley is more difficult. Yet it’s just one factor why the Clippers rank 23rd in points per play allowed in the halfcourt, per Cleaning The Glass, and allow the third-most points against pick-and-roll ballhandlers, per Synergy.

When Lue has been most frustrated, it has stemmed less from his team failing to reach its considerable defensive ceiling and more from his team not doing what he considers to be the non-negotiable minimum on that end. Based on possession data, NBA advanced statistics estimate the Clippers should be two points per 100 possessions better defensively than they have been.

It would help to have his three difference-makers available on defense. But no matter who is on the court, Lue expects more in the second half. Taking the defensive challenge, Lue said in late February, is “one thing we have to do especially if you want to be a championship team.”

Former Clippers and Detroit Pistons standout Blake Griffin, who cleared waivers Sunday, is set to join the Brooklyn Nets.

“First thing is just the mentality,” Lue said Tuesday. “I think having a defensive mentality, every single night, is going to be key for us. Like, we have the defenders to do it, on a night-to-night basis. And we got to have the mentality to start the game and finish the game with the same mentality.”

UP NEXT

VS GOLDEN STATE

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 1150, 1330

Update: Warriors (19-18) guard Kelly Oubre Jr. missed the last two games before the All-Star break because of a sprained left wrist. Golden State ranks second in opponent field-goal percentage allowed and, offensively, leads the league with 27.8 assists per game. Draymond Green averaged 11.2 assists over his last five games. Stephen Curry’s streak of 97 games with at least one three-pointer is the third longest in NBA history. After Thursday’s game the Clippers (24-14) begin a three-game trip at New Orleans before two games in Dallas.


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