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Clippers find their groove while LeBron James hurt late in win over Lakers

Lakers guard Patrick Beverley defends against Clippers forward Paul George.
Lakers guard Patrick Beverley defends against Clippers forward Paul George in the second quarter at Crypto.com Arena on Wednesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Robert Covington went from undrafted to a decade of service in the NBA because of his obsessive study skills. When he scouts opponents, he watches full games, not only the clips.

“It reveals a lot,” the Clippers’ forward said Wednesday morning. “I look at all the small things people don’t pay attention to.”

And often, it can reveal just as much about the team he’s trying to get going as the opponent he’s trying to shut down.

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This process took far longer than one night, but it was all on display amid a 114-101 victory Wednesday that marked their fifth win in their last six games to improve to 7-5. It ended with backup guard Norman Powell screaming after a dunk, his slow start beginning to fade after 18 points off the bench, with Paul George scoring 29 points, and the rugged defense of Patrick Beverley testing the patience of his former teammate but never entirely disrupting his former team.

“It definitely feels good to win games, but it feels better when you’re actually getting what we’re trying to implement as a coaching staff,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s kind of the position we’re in right now.”

The Clippers have won 34 of their last 41 games against their Crypto.com Arena co-tenants, and nine in a row under coach Tyronn Lue since the start of the 2020-21 season, and their latest win felt all but ensured after the Lakers’ LeBron James left midway through the fourth quarter with discomfort in his groin. He said he felt it was not as serious as the groin injury that sidelined him for long stretches of his first Lakers season in 2018.

“I feel good besides the injury,” James said. “I’ll get pictures on it [Thursday] and then we’ll go from there.”

How good the Clippers might be this season remains a bit of a mystery, but their comeback win over the Cleveland Cavaliers might mark a turning point.

Nov. 7, 2022

James had scored 30 points, with eight rebounds and five assists until that point — not enough to keep them from falling to 2-9.

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Lue, once a candidate to coach the Lakers and James’ title-winning coach in Cleveland, has a personal philosophy that any team with James is dangerous, even in the 20th season of his career. And yet the Lakers continued to struggle, making 10 of 32 three-pointers with 16 turnovers.

“It won’t be like this forever, I promise,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham told a visitor on his way out of the arena.

For a team with a slim margin separating winning and losing, the Lakers have often played their way into a corner quickly, outscored after the first quarter in nine of their first 10 games, and ranking third to last in the NBA by being outscored by 4.7 points per first quarter. The Clippers exploited that trend for their season’s most lopsided first quarter, leading by 17 while shooting 61% from the field, with Luke Kennard beating his chest after his three-pointer extended a 17-3 Clippers run.

This was the Clippers that Covington described as having “super scary” potential hours earlier Wednesday at shootaround.

Lakers forward LeBron James works the ball inside against Clippers guard John Wall.
Lakers forward LeBron James works the ball inside against Clippers guard John Wall in the second quarter at Crypto.com Arena on Wednesday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Yet in another sign the Clippers don’t have that rhythm and continuity, their own worst tendencies emerged true to form, as well. They are the league’s second-worst team in second-quarter point differential, a trend that has so often reduced their opportunities to win, including Wednesday.

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When the Clippers finally mustered their first field goal of the quarter 6 minutes, 28 seconds in, their lead had been whittled to 10. Russell Westbrook began targeting Kennard’s defense, pushing past him for several baseline layups, and the Clippers gave it nearly all back by halftime, leading only 54-52, after scoring 16 points.

On a night that was technically a Clippers home game, cheers grew after former Clippers spark plug Beverley, who didn’t give an inch while defending George in the second quarter, yelling at his former teammate after George passed the ball. When George made a jump shot on a following possession over Beverley, he returned the verbal fire to Beverley — a friend who attended George’s July wedding in Italy. They slapped fists and nodded at one another entering a timeout, the game finally on between the players and their teams.

Darvin Ham is the Lakers coach for some simple reasons: No truth is too tough to tackle, no topic too toxic to address, no star too big to coach.

Nov. 9, 2022

“We told him to shoot right over the top of him,” Lue said. “That changed our night and changed PG’s night offensively, as well.”

Lue chided his players to put on a competition, not a show, after turnovers and poor shot selection plagued their second quarter, and James shook his head after the Lakers saw the Clippers seven unanswered points to begin the third.

But after Troy Brown Jr.’s tying layup with three minutes to play in the third, George bounced the ball off of the stanchion’s padding in frustration.

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By the quarter’s end, the injured Kawhi Leonard nodded toward teammates in a huddle after they answered with a 16-4 run to lead by 12 entering the fourth quarter — a stretch that overlapped with the substitution of backup guard John Wall, who either scored or assisted on 11 points in the run. Wall, one of the league’s fastest guards, had hit full speed. His team might be right behind him.

“I think we’re starting to figure out, and come into our own,” George said. “Basketball looks good for the Clippers right now.”

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