Luke Kennard’s long-range plans help Clippers beat the Lakers
Tossing an elbow sleeve into the stands, Luke Kennard didn’t break stride running off Staples Center’s court late Friday. He was still at a steady jog when he disappeared underneath a tarp covering the tunnel leading to the Clippers’ locker room, rubbed a towel over his sweaty blonde hair and let out emotion that had been building for 48 minutes, and perhaps the last three weeks.
“That was wild,” Kennard said.
Two nights earlier, Kennard had left the arena in a far different mood: self-critical of his own shooting struggles and those of effort and execution that had led to his team to three consecutive Clippers losses, and seven defeats in their last 10.
But by the time Kennard bounced off the court Friday, after a 119-115 Clippers win against the Lakers, he was in a far different place and his team had what coach Tyronn Lue called the “blueprint” for how to right themselves.
The Lakers fell to .500 with a 119-115 loss to the Clippers, who never trailed in the game and made timely shots whenever the score was close.
Kennard scored 19 points off the bench, including five three-pointers, and his three-pointers with 72 seconds to play that pushed the lead to four, and another with 38 seconds left, to make the lead five, were characteristic of a victory in which star Paul George struggled to find his shot — he was held scoreless in the fourth quarter —- but was buoyed by a surrounding cast, including Kennard.
“To me he’s one of the best shooters in the league,” reserve center Isaiah Hartenstein said. “That’s what I tell him before very game.”
After three days off to rest an ankle twisted Sunday, George scored 19 points, missing all seven of his three-pointers, but contributed nine assists and eight rebounds while playing 39 minutes on an ankle he said he reinjured. He said he was hopeful to play Saturday in Sacramento.
Lakers guard Malik Monk credited Lue’s adjustment of moving Kennard to the strong side of the court, where the Lakers’ help defense was weakest, as a key move that sprung Kennard’s open shots late. The Lakers played George aggressively, often sending two defenders, and the Clippers’ counters led to 28 assists on 41 baskets, including one from George that found Kennard in the corner, the Lakers’ defense chasing after him to no avail.
“I remember being in a timeout, T-Lue kind of drew something up and that’s when I got the corner three,” Kennard said. “I thought we executed really well. They put pressure on PG a lot and it kind of opened up everything else for everybody.”
The Clippers’ last 11 baskets were assisted, including the three-pointer by Marcus Morris Sr. with seven seconds to play that sent fans streaming for the exits because of a six-point lead. Chastened after averaging nearly 16 turnovers in their last 10 games, the Clippers made simpler passes, turning the ball over just 10 times, their fewest turnovers since Nov. 9 — proving that a team even without Kawhi Leonard and Nicolas Batum, who missed his seventh consecutive game because of health and safety protocols, can still win.
“We controlled that game from start to finish,” Lue said. “We trusted the pass, made the right play. … That’s the way we’ve got to play.”
Morris made six of his nine three-pointers, looking for the first time this season like the forward who ranked as one of the NBA’s most accurate shooters last season, and finished with a team-high 21 points, all while playing out of position as a small forward in a starting lineup that included centers Serge Ibaka (three three-pointers) and Ivica Zubac (12 points, five rebounds) and outscored the Lakers by nine points in their minutes together.
Morris also guarded LeBron James on multiple occasions, which Lue said was only possible because Morris was in better shape one week since returning from an injured knee.
Lue said the big starting lineup of Zubac, Ibaka, George, Morris and Reggie Jackson would be used depending on matchups moving forward, and was dictated Friday by the Lakers starting Anthony Davis alongside Dwight Howard.
“I just thought defensively it really set the tone for us,” Lue said.
Five of Morris’ three-pointers came in the first half, and when his production slowed, it was Hartenstein who started the fourth quarter by scoring, drawing a foul or assisting on five consecutive possessions against a center-less Lakers lineup. The run began with a dunk over James. Hartenstein finished with 11 points.
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Friday marked a key point in the Clippers’ search for answers to stop their slide, as it was the 17th time in 23 games they had played in Los Angeles. But of their next 30 games, through January, they will play at home only 11 more times. Things are about to get even harder for the Clippers, and with Leonard still out, their playoff hopes rest less on overpowering opponents but by winning around the margins, from curbing their turnovers to fixing the areas Zubac and Kennard had focused on Wednesday, after a loss to Sacramento, when they had called out a “soft” defensive start and a need to play harder.
“The way the last couple weeks have been going, not winning many games, that was a part of having a little more energy as a group,” Kennard said. “We wanted to win, needed to win.”
Kennard hadn’t even sat down yet for his postgame remarks Friday but was already smiling, striding to a dais with a backward hat one.
Asked how he felt, he looked nothing like he had 48 hours earlier.
“Great,” he said.
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