John Wall spurs Clippers’ second-half comeback in victory at San Antonio
Everyone could see John Wall’s three-pointer from the left wing that sparked Friday night’s comeback here inside AT&T Center.
And 12,603 watched as Wall drove the lane on the next possession, dished an assist to Ivica Zubac, then used his speed to get baskets on the next two as well.
Few outside the Clippers, however, had seen Wall in the 48 hours before his game-changing second half — an emotion-filled two days that began with his frustration from shooting poorly and playing a season-low 15 minutes in Houston on a night he had circled, and continued with Wall dressing as quickly as possible before darting out of Houston’s Toyota Arena in a black SUV long before teammates departed in chartered buses.
“I was out of it. I was hot,” Wall said. “I was pissed because I wanted to play. Also you want to play well. First game back there with a team that you played with one year, next year you didn’t play as much, definitely want to show them you still got stuff you can do.”
Wall was not the leading scorer in Friday’s 113-106 victory that improved the Clippers to 5-4. Nor was the former No. 1 pick turned off-the-bench point guard for the Clippers their leader in minutes. But it was clear to everyone how the veteran guard’s energy helped steer the Clippers out of a 10-point deficit midway through the second half, just as the team was teetering, and into a third consecutive win.
Backup big man Moses Brown was impactful during the Clippers’ over Houston, but don’t expect L.A. to abandon small ball with its second unit on the floor.
In a season-high 27 minutes, Wall finished with 15 points, six assists and three rebounds while making six of his 14 shots after starting one for six as the Spurs’ strategy of going under screens to gladly allow him to attempt midrange shots — San Antonio all too aware that Wall entered Friday making 26% of his pull-up jumpers — paid off.
As San Antonio roared back from a 17-point deficit to lead by four at halftime by taking advantage of the Clippers’ shaky second unit, then pushed the lead to 10 in the third, the Clippers’ recent upswing, like their backup point guard, felt unclear which way it would go.
But as Paul George was on his way to a game-high 32 points, it was Wall who in the second half added 12 vital points, with four assists and zero turnovers, to clinch the win and bookend a trip that began with frustration with a different kind of step-back move — Wall taking the measure of himself. That self-awareness, George, said, is crucial for growth, comparing it to his own season where “immediately after my bad performances to start the season, I knew I needed to make that change.”
Said Wall: “Was it right?” No. I know it wasn’t right. So I came back and had a different mind.
“I knew I had to get back to being myself, being the guy this team needs if I’m playing 15 or 24 minutes. It is what it is. You have to accept that and come with the sacrifice of what this team with different guys got to take and make it on this team. I wasn’t really dwelling on it too much, everybody tried to make it more of a bigger deal, but I’m like, I’m a grown-ass man. I know when I’m wrong. I can admit to that and let the bygones be bygones. Not saying you can do that s— all the time and get away with it, but nobody’s perfect.”
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.
Friday was the test for Wall to turn his preseason words about playing with joy and sacrifice into actions, and he earned coach Tyronn Lue’s trust to play the final 18 minutes down the stretch and in the process played three more minutes than the 24 to which he said he has been restricted.
Wall and his teammates said they gave him space after leaving Houston.
“You kind of let people in those moments figure it out and get through it on themselves,” said George, a close friend of Wall’s for more than a decade. “They know what they need to do nine times out of 10, and it was one game. It wasn’t a big issue. It’s more of something he needed to address himself. He came out and made an imprint tonight.”
Lue, who said he did not have a conversation with Wall after the victory at Houston, said he was sympathetic to the factors impacting Wall’s start, including frustration from playing under what is currently a 24-minute restriction often without a traditional big man with whom he can play his pick-and-roll specialty.
“It’s been a tough adjustment for him,” Lue said, “and I got to try to find ways to you know, finagle the game where we can get [center Zubac] out early and maybe get Zu back with that second unit a little bit more and then bring in Nico [Batum] in earlier with that first unit.”
That first unit built a 23-5 lead as part of a 16-0 run in the first quarter, only to see it disappear when the reserves entered. More serious was that starting guard Luke Kennard left the game after the first quarter because of chest discomfort. Lue called Kennard “fine” afterward, and Kennard was set to travel home on the team’s flight to Los Angeles.
Fixing the second unit’s woes has been what Lue again called his biggest challenge. Getting reserve Norman Powell, who played Wednesday’s entire fourth quarter because of his solid play but struggled against the Spurs, into rhythm is part of that answer. So is Wall.
“Body language was bad [in Houston], but I just want to play,” Wall said. “Got to do a better job of knowing how to handle it and don’t let it affect the way I play.”
It didn’t affect him Friday when it mattered most, and for the Clippers that felt like two victories.
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