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Losing streak over: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard power confounding Clippers to comeback

Clippers guard Paul George drives past Memphis Grizzlies forward Luke Kennard.
Clippers guard Paul George drives past Memphis Grizzlies guard Luke Kennard during second quarter of the Clippers’ 135-129 comeback win Sunday at Crypto.com Arena. George finished with a game-high 42 points.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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The Clippers began this season believing their depth and talent would set them apart in a class of their own within the West.

They have done just that. Over the first 67 games, they have undergone a unique transformation, going from what many within the organization believed would be one of the NBA’s best teams to perhaps its most confounding. And over the course of Sunday’s final 12 minutes, a franchise whose direction appeared nearing free-fall went full throttle to close out the season’s gutsiest and most desperately needed victory, a 135-129 win against Memphis.

“It felt like the stakes were high,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

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Clippers coach Tyronn Lue planned to have his starting lineup and rotations solidified by now as the team reels following a fifth consecutive loss.

March 4, 2023

His team trailing by 14 at home to a short-handed opponent missing its stars, with time running out on their postseason push, Lue raised a topic with his players he has discussed publicly for days, as their losing streak grew to five and the Clippers earned an ominous distinction — the only Western Conference team yet to win since the All-Star break.

“Just said mental toughness, just show some resiliency,” Lue said. “Continue to keep fighting, keep battling.”

Behind 42 points by Paul George and 34 from Kawhi Leonard, including 15 in the fourth quarter, the Clippers ended their five-game losing streak and salvaged a win on a night when, at one point, the championship aspirations appeared lost.

After allowing 51 third-quarter points to Memphis, the Clippers allowed just 17 in the fourth quarter.

Kawhi Leonard dunks to give the Clippers a 122-121 lead in the fourth quarter.
Kawhi Leonard dunks to give the Clippers a 122-121 lead in the fourth quarter Sunday night against the Memphis Grizzlies.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
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“We brought another level and we played hard and we played with some grit,” George said. “I felt tonight we just had a winning spirit.”

At the season’s start, the schedule’s stretch run after the All-Star break appeared as a chance to rest and tune up for the playoffs.

Instead, a streak that continued through one-point losses in Denver, San Francisco and Sacramento turned into a gantlet of survival just to remain in the postseason picture.

And it was why the stakes Sunday were weightier than usual, the Clippers’ virtually full-strength roster — down only Norm Powell and his injured left shoulder — holding no excuse against Memphis.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is fouled by the Grizzlies' David Roddy during the second quarter Sunday.
Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is fouled by the Grizzlies’ David Roddy during the second quarter Sunday. Leonard finished with 34 points.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Its All-Star ignition in Ja Morant is missing at least two games, his timetable for a return unclear beyond that, amid an NBA investigation into the guard’s Instagram video in which he posed with what appeared to be a gun. Starting big man Steven Adams had a hurt knee. An Achilles tendon tear late last week sidelined athletic wing Brandon Clarke for the rest of the season. And drawing too many technical fouls had drawn a suspension for chief instigator Dillon Brooks.

“Tonight was a good start for us,” Lue said. “Especially after having some bad luck, and even our luck was so bad we even got struck by lightning,” a reference to the team’s plane being hit last week en route to Denver. “It’s just been a rough week and a half so we just got to continue to keep fighting through it.”

In moments, they produced reminders why they are treading water, why a flicker of hope in capturing their potential remains as they improved to 34-33 — and why, as Leonard and George cautioned, Sunday’s furious finish won’t change anything about the team’s on-again, off-again intensity without sustaining the effort.

“This means nothing if we don’t buy in to what we can do and what we can be. So we’ll see,” George said. “If we don’t treat the next games with the same that we treated that fourth quarter tonight then what are we doing here?”

Instead of tweaking his starting lineup, Lue turned again to his standard five of Leonard, George, Russell Westbrook, Ivica Zubac and Marcus Morris Sr. Though when the Clippers still looked lackluster at halftime, with Morris’ impact minimal after missing all four of his shots, Lue started Nicolas Batum over Morris in the second half.

Within one minute, their five-point halftime lead had expanded to 11. But less than eight minutes later, with their defense again in tatters and three largely preventable turnovers leading to seven Grizzlies points, the Clippers trailed by 10. And when Memphis reserve Santi Aldama turned and spun on Terance Mann at the free-throw line with a drive ending in a dunk, and Desmond Bane followed on their next possession with a three-pointer in transition, the lead swelled to 16.

The Grizzlies’ 51 points in the third marked a nadir for a defense that has trended among the NBA’s worst for much of the last two months.

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“We can’t do that,” Leonard said.

Then came the avalanche, the Grizzlies unable to score for nearly six minutes as the Clippers scored 17 consecutive points. Their run was punctuated by a Westbrook dunk and foul. The run grew to 24-2.

Eric Gordon scored 17 off the bench and Mason Plumlee added 15 points.

“We’re staying together; nobody’s pointing the finger at one another,” Leonard said. “… Hopefully we can have some carryover.”

Russell Westbrook and Paul George helped the Clippers rally, but the team lost 128-127 at Sacramento. There’s no timetable yet for Norman Powell’s injury.

March 3, 2023

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