Clippers fine-tune their lineups ahead of play-in tournament, rout Kings
One game remains on the Clippers’ schedule, but their final dress rehearsal before the play-in tournament is already over.
In their last opportunity to fine-tune their core postseason lineups before the play-in tournament — given Paul George, Marcus Morris Sr. and Norman Powell will take Sunday’s regular-season finale against Oklahoma City off for rest — the Clippers weren’t able to experiment as much as coach Tyronn Lue hoped in a 117-98 rout of the Sacramento Kings.
It was, as Lue noted, their only game since February’s trade deadline that featured a full, healthy rotation, with Kawhi Leonard the exception.
Yet this much is clear: The two players the Clippers need most in rhythm before Tuesday’s play-in matchup in Minnesota appear postseason ready.
The Clippers will see a familiar face when they go up against Patrick Beverley and the Minnesota Timberwolves in NBA playoffs play-in game Tuesday.
George made five of his first six shots, including four three-pointers, to end the first quarter with 14 points, only two fewer than the Kings as a whole, and he finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and a career-high-tying 12 assists that generated 30 points.
Acting as a de facto point guard — especially with bench units, which usually have been directed by Terance Mann — George threaded a right-handed assist to a cutting Ivica Zubac from a wildly difficult angle, hooked over his head, then whipped a pass from the top of the arc to the corner for an open Luke Kennard three-pointer.
Kennard had missed the last game with a sore hamstring but scored 10 points and was the missing piece of the healthy rotation.
George tied his season high with six three-pointers on nine attempts. Lue showed some displeasure with George’s four second-half turnovers, after he had none in the first half, but George’s presence since returning from an elbow injury has opened up shots for others, Lue said.
George called himself as comfortable playing as a facilitator as much as a scorer, and his connection with Norman Powell continues to progress in ways the Clippers have hoped.
Powell scored 20 points off the bench and, in two games since returning from a foot fracture that cost him seven weeks, Powell has made 12 of his 20 shots and seven of his 10 three-pointers. He and George have played 16 minutes together in two games and the Clippers have outscored opponents by 22 points in those minutes.
Lue was happiest with the team’s defensive focus to start while they were “working on a couple different things that we want to use going forward.”
“I think we are at our best when our defense and communication is on point and our ball movement is on point. I think that is when we are at our best. Since I have been back, I think we played that way every game,” George said. “So that is just what you want to see. The good thing, other than the past game, when we’ve gone up, we’ve stayed up and kind of put teams away. I think we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
Not all appeared so easy. A noticeable number of early passes, often from point guard Reggie Jackson, and shots inside the paint missed their target.
Jackson and Morris combined to make seven of their 22 shots to extend Jackson’s cold shooting to three straight games. And a 12-0 run by the Kings cut a 20-point lead to seven early in the third quarter, aided by Clippers sloppiness.
Ivica Zubac finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds for the Clippers (41-40), who clinched their 11th consecutive season with a .500 or better record.
It was notable on a night between teams going divergent ways. Less than a week ago, the Kings set an NBA record for their 16th consecutive season without a postseason appearance, breaking a record shared with the Clippers from 1976-91.
En route to making 21 of their 43 three-pointers Sunday — their third straight game with at least 20 three-pointers — the Clippers set a record for most made three-pointers in a single season.
With Paul George and Norman Powell back from injury and the return of Kawhi Leonard remains possible, the Clippers could make noise in the postseason.
Jackson, who finished with seven points and four turnovers against Sacramento, was with George on Thursday night when the matchup with Minnesota became official, making their last two games all the more important as their last chance to ramp up.
“I can’t tell people what my heart felt,” Jackson said. “It just, everything changed in an instant. Like oh, snap.”
The Clippers have spent the past few days wrapping their minds around the concept of the play-in, a format foreign to them until now. It carries the stakes of a Game 7, yet there is no Game 6 to draw adjustments from. And if the Clippers lose in Minnesota, they would have one, final chance to advance to the postseason Friday. Adjustments that would normally take place after the second game of a seven-game series must now happen after one quarter Lue said.
“We competed, continue to keep touching the paint, moving the basketball,” Lue said, “and we got a couple days to continue to try to figure it out.”
Up next for the Clippers: Sunday vs. Oklahoma City
When: 6:30 p.m. PDT
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1220
Update: Former Clippers point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander won’t be playing for the Thunder (24-57) in the regular-season finale, out since late March because of an ankle injury. The trade that sent Gilgeous-Alexander to Oklahoma City and Paul George to the Clippers also will provide the Thunder a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Oklahoma City’s Jaylen Hoard has played in just six games this season but has averaged 17.8 points and 13.4 rebounds while making 42% of his three-pointers in five games since April 1.
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