Clippers take control second half to beat Thunder without Paul George
The image that returned from the scan of Paul George’s injured right knee provided about as good of news as the Clippers could have hoped: George’s awkward land Tuesday after grabbing a rebound did not damage any ligaments — and the All-Star forward is not expected to need surgery, either.
What isn’t any clearer is whether George could be available during the playoffs.
With only three games separating fourth through 12th in the Western Conference standings entering Thursday, there is no guarantee whether the Clippers will advance directly to a seven-game first-round series or fall back into the play-in tournament. How long the Clippers stay alive matters for any potential return to action.
George is wearing a brace on his sprained right knee and using a crutch while he rests for the next two to three weeks, a timeline that is likely to result in George missing the rest of the regular season, which ends April 9. After that his mobility will be reassessed by the team, and should he be cleared, a ramp-up period would begin. Within the team, there is a belief that it might be overly optimistic to believe George could be ready by the first round.
Clippers teammate Terance Mann took the diagnosis as “definitely better than what it could have been” after watching George’s right knee bend backward.
“Everybody’s kind of feeling better about it,” Mann said, “and knowing that we could potentially get him back is good.”
So was their response without George on Thursday at Crypto.com Arena.
The Clippers and Paul George appear to have dodged the worst-case scenario. The All-Star forward suffered a sprained right knee and will be reevaluated in 2-3 weeks.
After a stagnant second quarter that left the score tied at halftime, the Clippers controlled the second half en route to a 127-105 win behind Kawhi Leonard’s surgical shooting and stellar bench contributions from players such as Bones Hyland, who will see their responsibilities increase with George out.
“Missing a guy like that, the ball is going to be in my hands more and everybody else as well,” Leonard said. “One man can’t win these basketball games. Still going to have to come in with a group effort.”
The Clippers (39-35) are 5-2 this season in games when Leonard has played but George has not.
“This is a really good win for us,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “We needed it.”
Leonard made 13 of his 15 shots for 32 points, adding six points and six rebounds. Russell Westbrook rebounded from a four-turnover first half to score 24 points, with seven assists, while making eight of his 13 shots.
Success without George, whom the Clippers alternately described as both disappointed but also in good spirits, will require replicating the hallmarks of the second half and avoiding the missteps of the first.
At halftime, the Clippers had nine turnovers and allowed eight offensive rebounds. After, they committed just four and gave up just five. Before, the offense had dragged. After, with Mann and Hyland’s energy, the Clippers played with a pace that Lue said must be a hallmark of every remaining game. Leonard, after 15 points in the first quarter, didn’t attempt a shot in his seven second-quarter minutes. Then he scored 15 more in the third quarter.
Carrying on will also require the Clippers’ reworked starting lineup, which includes guard Eric Gordon in George’s spot, to find its footing — and quickly.
Lue credited this win to a bench that “changed the game for us.” Hyland, playing for the first time in eight games, scored 16 points and injected life into the lineup to turn a seven-point first-quarter deficit into a seven-point lead. As Hyland recaptured playing time, Nicolas Batum recaptured his shooting stroke by matching Hyland’s four three-pointers for 12 points. The Clippers won Batum’s 18 minutes by a stunning 34 points, and the Clippers outscored the Thunder by 32 with Hyland on the floor.
“Guys who haven’t been playing like myself, just come in and be the guy who provides the spark,” Hyland said. “PG went down, it’s a sad moment but PG will be back out there with us, but we got to handle business on the floor and keep tallying wins for PG.”
Hyland shined as part of backcourts with Westbrook and Mann, and Mann and Leonard, occupying a role that could go to Norman Powell once he returns from a shoulder injury.
Paul George injured his right leg late in the game and the Clippers failed to get off a shot in the final possession of a 101-100 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
On offense, the Clippers were 8.8 points better per 100 possessions with George on the floor than off this season, the team’s largest disparity.
And that means that, of course, the workload in George’s absence will increase especially for Leonard, who must be in “attack mode all night” on offense, Lue said, while also guarding opponents’ best players earlier in the game, a job George handled.
At a point when every game is critical for the Clippers to avoid falling into the play-in tournament, there remain two sets of games played on consecutive days — meaning two games that the Clippers could be without Leonard, too.
“In order for us to be good going down the stretch Kawhi is going to have to play at a high level,” Lue said.
“With PG being out and Norm being out, this is what we need from him every night.”
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