Return of Paul George sparks defensive uptick for Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George intercepts a pass and another player has fallen on the court.
Clippers’ Paul George intercepts a pass meant for Chicago Bulls guard Ayo Dosunmu on Thursday at United Center.
(Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press)

Glancing at a box score from the Clippers’ victory over New Orleans late Sunday night, a satisfied smile crossed Tyronn Lue’s face.

“Zero attempts from three for Valanciunas,” the Clippers’ coach said, reading the paper in front of him. “How ’bout that?”

In three previous matchups against the Clippers this season, Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas had operated at will, making 14 of 20 three-pointers, even when his threat from behind the arc was on the scouting report. But Sunday, when the Clippers defeated the Pelicans 119-100 to clinch the West’s eighth-best record, Valanciunas was unable to break free for a single three-point attempt.


To Lue, Valanciunas’ 0-for-0 line in the stat sheet represented more than one matchup gone right — it also reflected the renewed, overall influence of Paul George.

In the three games George has played since returning from an elbow injury that cost him three months, Lue has noticed an uptick in the team’s defensive mentality, particularly to start games. With four comebacks of 25 points or greater this season, the Clippers have proved they can handle a late rally, yet relying on resilience is a shaky formula for postseason success, and George said he challenged teammates upon his return against Utah to take the next step toward their playoff preparation by knowing the game plan and being sharp in implementing it from the start.

The Clippers added some insurance to their postseason aspirations, clinching eighth place in the NBA Western Conference in a 119-100 win over the Pelicans.

April 3, 2022

When George backed up his challenge by immediately ripping away the dribbles of Utah’s Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, it began a trickle-down effect, teammates realizing they needed to match George’s intensity. Since George’s return, the Clippers are allowing 10 fewer points per 100 possessions when he plays versus when he sits.

“Especially in our first game against Utah, first quarter he had a few steals to start the game, a few strips. When you see your No. 1 guy go hard like that on defense, you’ve got to follow the lead,” center Ivica Zubac told The Times. “And that’s it. PG’s our leader out there and he’s diving for the balls, he’s giving 100% effort each possession.

“There’s nothing else you can really do; you’ve gotta do the same.”

The Clippers (39-40) broke open Sunday’s win in the second quarter by holding New Orleans scoreless for nearly five minutes and allowing just 13 points, showing their ability to lock in on key matchups. Both C.J. McCollum and Brandon Ingram, New Orleans’ other key scorers, shot worse than 50%, including just six for 22 inside the arc.

There wasn’t any point that “we weren’t locked in and we didn’t have the game plan in our mind,” George said. “I thought we executed it great.”


Said Lue: “Our defense hasn’t been as good as we need it to be, but the last few games, we’ve been able to step our defense up.”

In a season during which the Clippers regularly have played short-handed, there were nights when they did focus in but couldn’t sustain it because of jumbled rotations filled with players unfamiliar with one another. Reinserting George into the lineup “makes it easier on everyone else,” Zubac said.

Terance Mann smiles and holds up his pointer finger after scoring as Jonas Valanciunas looks on
Clippers guard Terance Mann celebrates after scoring as New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas stands nearby Sunday at Arena.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“I feel like we were doing it before but some nights we were missing guys and it was tough and sometimes we didn’t have enough,” he said. “It just didn’t show.

“Now with PG, we good.”

More than rejuvenating the Clippers’ defensive potential, it also has infused a confidence that belies their record. With guard Norman Powell working out on the Arena court before tipoff Sunday in the latest step toward his recovery from a fractured foot bone, forward Marcus Morris Sr. said they don’t feel like a typical eighth-seeded team, which will get two play-in games to qualify for the playoffs.

Should Powell and Kawhi Leonard, whose return has not been ruled out, both come back, the Clippers would become one of the postseason’s most fascinating teams.


They already are one of the most confident.

“We’re a confident group and we feel we can match up and play and beat anybody,” George said. “I think it was just tough for them going through that stretch without me in the lineup. Like I’ve been saying, it’s just a lot of guys that had to carry and take on different positions, different roles and more stuff on their plate that they had to play through and give.

Paul George boosts the Clippers’ offense and gives coach Tyronn Lue new options, but scouts say some playoff matchup hurdles will be hard to overcome.

March 30, 2022

“But I thought they did a great job of managing our season up to this point. But we’re a confident group and I think me coming back definitely gives our locker room just more of that assurance that we can put together another great postseason.”

Second-seeded Memphis has been a matchup nightmare for the Clippers all season with its bully-ball style that punishes the Clippers inside the paint. The Clippers have played hard against top-seeded Phoenix and draw confidence from taking the Suns to six games in last year’s Western Conference finals, despite playing without Leonard and with Zubac and Morris hobbled and George, Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum running on fumes.

The fluidity and lack of rust shown in George’s 34-point, four-steal performance in his first game back from injury to spark a 25-point comeback against Utah surprised even teammates. Like their coach, the players said they took it as a sign greater than a few numbers in a box score. If George returned with an all-business attitude, he would expect the same from them with the postseason looming.

“Just being a vet himself, and knowing how to keep his body in the right condition and knowing how to stay mentally into it and being around the team, that just showed me he’s a leader,” Morris said.

And does that provide added confidence entering the playoffs?

“Hell yeah,” Morris said. “Hell. Yeah.”