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Eric Bledsoe paces Clippers to win over Pistons

Clippers guard Luke Kennard tries to control the ball while pressured by Pistons guard Hamidou Diallo.
Clippers guard Luke Kennard tries to control the ball while pressured by Pistons guard Hamidou Diallo during the first half Saturday.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The opening minutes of the Clippers’ 107-96 win over the Detroit Pistons on Friday featured one performance coach Tyronn Lue had been eagerly waiting to witness and one lineup he never expected to.

Eric Bledsoe reintroduced himself to an offense in which he had become largely invisible.

Then Isaiah Hartenstein and Serge Ibaka helped introduce the season’s first double-center lineup.

On only the Clippers’ second possession, Bledsoe, standing in the corner, made his first three-pointer in four games. One possession later, he had his first outing of multiple three-pointers in six games.

In all, Bledsoe scored 11 points within three minutes — by making three catch-and-shoot three-pointers, even though he’d made only 25% of such shots this season — and set into motion a mismatch that would continue for much of the next two hours, despite the Clippers’ two leading scorers, Paul George (12 points) and Reggie Jackson (21 points), combining to make 13 of 38 shots and four of 19 three-pointers.

The Clippers (11-8) led by as many as 29 points and by at least 20 for all but five minutes of the second half, when a 21-8 Pistons run forced Lue to play his starters deeper into the fourth quarter than he had intended.

After a stretch of five games in seven days, which included three losses and COVID-related issues, the Clippers have a two-day Thanksgiving break to recover.

Bledsoe finished with 15 points on six-of-nine shooting, three rebounds and three assists against the Pistons after averaging 3.8 points, 4.5 shots and 33% shooting accuracy in his last four games. Lue said before tipoff that it was “totally on me” to put Bledsoe in better positions so he could be more aggressive, but the guard said his recent lack of involvement was not the coach’s fault.

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“I got to do a better job of when I’m out there, shoot the ball when I’m open, be aggressive going to the hole and make the right play,” he said.

Consistency has eluded Bledsoe this season while shooting 40% overall and 25% on three-pointers, well below his career averages.

“It’s a long season, you’re gonna have ups and downs,” he said. “You’re gonna have rocky [times] especially, like I said, especially coming to a team where guys are already established in their roles and stuff. But I think I do a very great job of help impacting the game in different ways.”

Searching for a way to turn around the Clippers after three losses in four games, Lue found a different tack. Only 19 days earlier, he could not stop laughing when asked about Ibaka‘s and Hartenstein’s potential fit at center and power forward, saying he hoped not to play them together. Once he was done chuckling, he explained that it would require Ibaka to learn to play power forward within their sets when he was still re-learning how to play center.

Yet Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who played centers Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas together often in Toronto, said he believed there were “no limitations” on using Ibaka as a power forward in such a pairing.

“I think Serge can play with anybody,” Casey said. “His skillset translates to the four.”

Clippers center Serge Ibaka, who played limited minutes upon his return from back surgery, opted for a G League assignment to complete his rehab.

Lue revealed to his centers at shootaround the plan to use them together. The decision “surprised” Ibaka, considering he hadn’t played forward in four years. Yet there was little recourse but acceptance.

“I just want to be on the court,” Ibaka said. “Even if I had to play at the one, I’d play at the one. I don’t think it’s going to be the case, but you know what I mean? I just want to be on the court, so whatever it take I’m going to do it. I don’t really have a lot of choice right now.”

Ibaka, a 35% career three-point shooter, typically was stationed beyond the three-point line for spacing, allowing Hartenstein to run between the paint and perimeter setting screens and rolling to the rim. But on one possession, they created a memorable high-low connection when Hartenstein found Ibaka, posting up, for a pass that led to a dunk.

Ibaka played a season-high 19 minutes, with nine points, two rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Hartenstein had 10 points, five rebounds and three assists

Hartenstein had done nothing to justify a removal from the rotation while Ibaka was in the G League building up his conditioning. Meting out a few minutes to each in separate lineups wasn’t helping anyone, with Lue describing a correlation between Hartenstein’s reduced role in recent games and the fewer good looks seen by guard Luke Kennard.

Kennard had eight points, with seven rebounds and three assists but made only two of 10 shots. Terance Mann posted his fifth career double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds).

“Talked to my coaches over the last couple days [and] just the way Isaiah was playing for us was great, and to give Serge more minutes and give him an opportunity to be on the floor more, and so I wanted to take a look at it,” Lue said. “I thought they did a nice job.”

For all the intrigue the dual-center lineup created, it was outscored by three points overall. Meanwhile, Ivica Zubac further entrenched himself with the starters with 10 points and 13 rebounds — the Clippers are now 6-0 when he has a double-double — and his chemistry with George on pick-and-rolls.

As the roll man, he repeatedly caught George’s pocket passes near the free-throw line and used his vision to spray passes to open teammates across the court. It had the effect of putting Detroit’s help defenders in the purgatory of choosing between shading toward the paint to stop his rolls or staying close to Clippers shooters stationed in each corner.


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