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As Lakers slip, Clippers take step forward with chance to make their move in West

Clippers center Ivica Zubac shoots over Hornets forward P.J. Washington and center Bismack Biyombo.
Clippers center Ivica Zubac shoots over Hornets forward P.J. Washington and center Bismack Biyombo on Saturday at Staples Center.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

When Staples Center hosts NBA doubleheaders, the noon game typically has been assigned to the Clippers, a tendency that in recent seasons has produced more than a few complaints from the early risers.

On Saturday, the Lakers took the early shift instead, so the Clippers had a keen sense of the opportunity awaiting them by the time they tipped off a 125-98 victory over Charlotte. Hours earlier, on their way to losing to Atlanta, the Lakers also lost LeBron James indefinitely to a high-ankle sprain, leaving the defending champions without their two superstars for an unknown duration.

For a Clippers squad that rarely has helped itself during the last month while stuck in a cycle of inconsistency and injuries, any help with playoff positioning will be gratefully received. They entered Saturday fourth in the Western Conference but closer to fifth and sixth than second and third, and with only 30 games remaining to make up ground. Should the durable James be sidelined for long, and with 10 of their next 12 games played at home, the Clippers might have an opportunity to do just that.

Of course, they must take care of business too, and with a 6-8 record since Feb. 17, that has proved easier said than done. It looked easy against the Hornets, with Paul George scoring 21 points with 10 assists, including an alley-oop lob to Kawhi Leonard he threw from halfcourt, and no turnovers. Leonard scored 17 points as seven Clippers scored in double figures.

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The Clippers (27-16) moved within four games of West-leading Utah, and while catching the Jazz — who own the season-series tiebreaker — seems unlikely, Phoenix and the Lakers are just 1½ games ahead.

LaMelo Ball, the point guard from Chino Hills was unable to produce the kind of highlights that have made the third overall pick in November’s draft the frontrunner to win rookie of the year. Ball scored 13 points with five rebounds and two assists and wore tape between his right thumb and index finger after appearing to hurt the hand during the first half. A trainer tended to the hand during timeouts.

Ball tapped his teal Puma sneakers while sitting on the bench late in the third quarter, antsy for a chance to reenter the game that would not come until eight minutes remained in the fourth quarter, by which time the Clippers led by 27. Nicolas Batum, meanwhile, hawked Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham beyond the perimeter. A year ago they were teammates during the most frustrating season of Batum’s 13-year career, Batum rarely contributing as Charlotte pivoted to a youth movement.

After being waived to make room for the contract of Gordon Hayward, who scored 17 points, Batum signed with the Clippers and revived his career. He finished with 11 points against his former franchise.

Highlights from the Clippers’ win over the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday.

Monday against Atlanta, the Clippers have a chance to put together their first back-to-back victories since Feb. 14-15. Coach Tyronn Lue has never wavered that consistency, like potential, hinges on defensive effort.

The Clippers’ defense won’t be whole until starters Serge Ibaka (lower back tightness) and Patrick Beverley (right knee soreness) return from injuries that have sidelined them recently. In any season, the tricky nature of managing long-term injuries, Lue said, is that a healthy roster can run all the repetitions it wants in installing new sets or reinforcing old tenets, but when the injured players return, they’re usually playing catch-up. That problem has been compounded this season, with 10 fewer games and far less practice time to ease such transitions.

“There was a part of the season when we weren’t able to go to the gym as much as we wanted to do because of protocol,” Lue said. “That is the biggest thing. The 10 games, I think we can kind of live with. It is just the practice time that you miss all throughout the course of the season.”

Still, Saturday showcased the kind of step forward the Clippers might have within them, even while playing short-handed.

Clippers forward Paul George was fined $35,000 by the NBA on Friday for his critical comments about officiating following a loss Wednesday night.

Since being challenged by Lue after last Sunday’s sieve-like effort in New Orleans, the Clippers have strung together three consecutive performances in which their defense offered greater resistance. Their hopes of realizing their potential rest on locking up opponents like they did the Hornets (20-21). The Clippers improved to 7-0 when holding teams to fewer than 100 points by staying disciplined enough to take away two areas of concern.

Charlotte scored just 30 points in the paint — 26 fewer than the Clippers — and the Hornets managed four fast-break points. The Clippers had 16.

“We just have to play hard,” said guard Terance Mann, whose 16 points were a season high. “We’re a scary team when we play hard.”


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