John Wall helps Clippers to back-to-back wins over Rockets in return to Houston
The stands weren’t close to full Wednesday, this city’s attention drawn more to the hometown Astros’ World Series appearance than early November basketball. The loudest Toyota Center cheers were sparked between the third and fourth quarters by the scoreboard showing an Astros lead in Philadelphia.
The next-loudest moment came two minutes later. John Wall, the point guard whose divorce with Houston last summer in a contract buyout paved his way to join the Clippers in free agency, had stolen a pass at midcourt when he dribbled pensively toward the three-point line, then burst into the paint. Shuffling the ball around his waist in a full circle to avoid the reach of Rockets guard Daishen Nix, he saw Kevin Porter Jr. awaiting at the rim and flipped the ball behind his head to Moses Brown. Before Brown had time to extend his 7-foot-3 wingspan and dunk for a nine-point lead, Clippers players had jumped out of their sideline seats at the play.
“We talked about it actually in warmups about his patented dribble behind the back move,” said Paul George. “I’ve never seen anyone stop it and sure enough he pulled it out.”
The play during what became a 109-101 win — the Clippers’ second consecutive, improving them to 4-4 — was a glimpse of the Wall the Clippers hoped they were getting upon his signing in July. It was also a moment few saw of him during his 18-month stay in Houston.
Paul George hit a go-ahead jumper with six seconds left to cap his huge night, and the Clippers edged the Houston Rockets 95-93 to stop a four-game skid.
Wall had gone through dark times while starting his career in Washington, starting with a recurring stream of injuries and including the death of his mother, with whom he was especially close. But his 18 months in Houston authored a particularly dispiriting chapter and ended with an exile from the league he once dominated with his speed and vision.
Wall spent most of last season away from the Rockets after the player and team agreed the veteran didn’t fit into plans to rebuild around a young backcourt.
Teammates and coaches did not see a change in Wall, who quickly left Houston’s arena without talking with reporters, during the lead-up to Wednesday’s full-circle moment. It marked his first in Houston since April 23, 2021, which also happened to be the last game he played before sitting out last season. The bigger impression Wall left on them, they say, is the joy he has exhibited dating to July, when he broke back into the league and was a nearly daily presence in the gym during workouts when he was in Los Angeles.
“He just studies and watches the game of basketball, so when you lose the game of basketball, something you love, for two years you’re very excited to come back and he shows that by how he plays every single night, the passion he plays with,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
Wall scored six points, with four assists and two steals, in 15 minutes off the bench. As recently as Sunday, he called himself frustrated at times by the limited number of minutes the team is allowing him to play but also mindful of its intent of keeping him healthy for a long season.
“He wants to be out longer and play longer but at the same time he’s been great with understanding the big picture,” said Paul George, who scored a team-high 28 points. “It’s been multiple occasions where he wants to be on that floor. We’re building it up. He’ll get there.”
The annual call of “Wait ‘til next year” or even later this season won’t work for the title-hopeful Clippers, who are struggling in every facet of the game.
If Wall’s return was highly anticipated, Moses Brown’s influence was just as unexpected. The former UCLA big man, who signed a two-way contract after being invited to training camp, had played all of 12 combined minutes in four previous appearances this season. But starting center Ivica Zubac’s four first-half fouls, and the ineffectiveness of the team’s small lineups during a second quarter when the Clippers lost an 18-point lead, led Lue to play Brown with the starters to open the third quarter.
Brown, once nowhere but the bench, suddenly was everywhere, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds, including three offensive. Lue ditched his small lineups during a third quarter the Clippers won by four points.
“He really won this game for us,” Lue said.
The Clippers won despite missing Kawhi Leonard and Robert Covington. Covington is in the league’s health and safety protocols while Leonard remains in California managing stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee. Nothing more was revealed by the Clippers about the eventual return of Leonard, other than Lue saying the star is “moving in a positive direction. Lue previously said that Leonard is frustrated not being able to play; Wednesday was his sixth absence in the season’s first eight games.
Houston coach Stephen Silas joked before tipoff that he was less happy to see Wall on Wednesday, when he was available to play, than in the Clippers’ win against the Rockets two days earlier in Los Angeles, when Wall was held out of the second night of a back to back. The coach had visited Wall in Miami and Los Angeles during the 2021 offseason, and it was during the latter meeting he said both sides discussed Wall’s role — notably, the lack of one amid the franchise’s rebuild around a younger backcourt including Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green. Wall continued to be around the team through November of last season with Wall working out with longtime assistant John Lucas after practices, until last Christmas, after which he became less of a presence.
Wall told The Athletic in October that he was “pissed as hell” at not playing last season, but on Monday said there “was no reason to have a grudge. It just sucked not being able to play, but we had to understand what was going on.”
There is one similarity between his time in Houston and Los Angeles with coaches from both staffs lauding his guidance of young players. Wall dropped by Houston’s locker room to say hello to the Rockets’ younger players, whom he likened to brothers. One of those players, Porter Jr., even credited Wall last month, upon signing a lucrative contract extension, for helping him through an up-and-down start to his career and teaching him to be a better ballhandler.
“He’s a super smart guy who can dissect pick and roll better than a lot of coaches,” said Silas.
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