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Paul George makes big return, leads Clippers to 25-point comeback win over Jazz

Clippers guard Paul George shoots as Utah Jazz center Greg Monroe defends.
Clippers wing Paul George, who missed the previous 43 games because of an elbow injury, shoots as Utah Jazz center Greg Monroe defends Tuesday night at Crypto.com Arena.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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Paul George looked like himself again.

His team does as well.

Forty-three games and 97 days after he began resting a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right, shooting elbow, the All-Star wing needed only two minutes to flash his elite defensive form, one quarter to regain his offensive rhythm and one game to enliven a dragging Clippers team and end its five-game losing streak.

George used his in-and-out dribble to freeze a defender in the paint, scored in bunches amid a game-changing third-quarter push and ended Utah Jazz possessions with his quick hands. All of it looked familiar.

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So did the Clippers’ rally Tuesday night.

Down 25 points in the third quarter, the Clippers roared back behind George’s 34 points, six assists, four steals and two rebounds for a 121-115 victory at Crypto.com Arena that marked their fourth comeback of at least 24 points this season, the most by an NBA team in the last 25 seasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Backup center Isaiah Hartenstein turned to wing Terance Mann with the Clippers down 25 and remarked that they had been in similar situations before. In fact, only nine months earlier, a 25-point rally by the Clippers ended Utah’s season in the playoffs’ second round.

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July 27, 2021

“It’s literally the same thing,” said Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who scored 33 points.

This was not George’s first recovery from a long injury layoff either, with leg and shoulder injuries costing him months earlier in his career, experiences he called important in keeping his optimism that he could return strong.

“I was always optimistic I could come back and play,” George said. “I just kept the guys encouraged — ‘At some point, I will return.’ ”

With the Clippers all but locked into eighth place in the Western Conference and bound for the postseason play-in tournament, George’s return now, with six games left in the regular season after Tuesday’s win, requires viewing through the lens of how it might raise the Clippers’ ceiling come mid-April, when the playoffs begin, not one game in late March. With the team hopeful that injured guard Norman Powell can return to practice in the next 10 days, as a source confirmed, the Clippers’ two-way potential in the postseason could be raised further.

“It changes for us big time,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

Yet the Clippers could not afford to wait two weeks to recapture their rhythm. And after they missed 15 of their first 18 shots Tuesday, George’s legs admittedly felt “heavy” and Mitchell repeatedly gashed the Clippers’ perimeter defense, George’s return helped capture momentum where none appeared midway through the third quarter.

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Clippers guard Paul George and guard Reggie Jackson talk.
The Clippers’ Paul George, left, and Reggie Jackson talk during the first half against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

A game that started with miscues by the Clippers (37-39) ended with a meltdown by the Jazz (45-31) and their fifth consecutive loss. Mitchell’s appeal for a timeout with 10 seconds to play down five when the Jazz had none remaining led to a technical free throw shot by George, a streak-breaking victory and the best welcome George could have envisioned.

“I didn’t see that coming,” Hartenstein said. “Thirty-four in his first night back? Not a lot of players can do that.”

George considered undergoing surgery in December but decided for rest on the advice of doctors and credited the team’s coaches and medical staffers with getting him ready, singling out the extensive running assistant coach Brian Shaw put him through. He called his elbow 90% healthy.

“It felt good, but honestly I was well-prepared coming into tonight,” George said.

He looked no worse for wear while swiping the dribble of Mitchell twice within his first two minutes, making another steal from behind Mike Conley shortly afterward and then getting a fourth that went uncredited because of a foul in the first half. He dribbled around a screen and into a three-pointer one minute into the second quarter for his first basket since Dec. 22, a shot he followed with another three in the face of defensive stalwart Rudy Gobert.

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March 26, 2022

After ending a 20-point third quarter — his highest-scoring quarter this season — with a layup and foul in the final seconds, George made his sixth three-pointer to pull the Clippers to within seven with 5:37 to play, then ripped the dribble of Mitchell for his fourth steal, leading to a layup at the other end and forcing a Utah timeout.

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“I thought his defense was incredible,” Lue said of George.

The delay did little to slow the Jazz’s disappearing lead, as George leaped to collect an alley-oop with his right hand before it went out of bounds before redirecting the lob to Hartenstein using one motion to spur a dunk that pulled the Clippers to within three with 4:09 to play, the arena its loudest in weeks.

The Clippers took their first lead 45 minutes into the game on a soft floater from Hartenstein, then regained it by one with 95 seconds to play after George’s drive finished with a layup through Gobert’s long arms.

Lue said before tipoff that there would be an “adjustment period” for George, along with a minutes limit, and promised not to put too much on his workload too soon. But the Clippers used him for 31 minutes and his form surprised even Lue.

“He looked really good,” Lue said. “I didn’t think he’d look that good.”

George’s postgame television interview was interrupted by teammate and close friend Reggie Jackson, who sneaked behind him and chanted “MVP!” Then three others crept up and doused him with water, cooling off the man of the hour.

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