Clippers are too much for Victor Wembanyama and the Spurs

Clippers forward Paul George, center, shoots in front of San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson.
Clippers forward Paul George, center, shoots in front of San Antonio Spurs forward Keldon Johnson during the first half of the Clippers’ 123-83 victory Sunday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)
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Everyone came to Arena to get a look at Victor Wembanyama.

The Clippers, meanwhile, needed to get a look at themselves.

It was necessary to look past the spectacle of Wembanyama, no matter how impossible it seemed Sunday, as the rookie carrying the highest expectations since LeBron James 20 years earlier played his first professional game in Los Angeles.


That’s because the Clippers spent three weeks of preseason practices describing the great expectations they have for themselves — of playing with pace and physicality, with rejuvenated energy and attention to detail, all to play up to their unfulfilled championship ambitions.

Yet, after living up to those ideals in Wednesday’s opener, they fell far short Friday in Utah while being crushed on the glass, too loose with the basketball and, after roaring back from a double-digit deficit, not sharp enough in the final minute to hold on to a lead.

Three games into the season, the Clippers arrived Sunday for a test not only of keeping in check the 7-foot-4 Wembanyama, but also whether they could keep their preseason promises.

In a 123-83 victory, they did. The margin was as much about the rebuilding Spurs as it was the refocused Clippers (2-1).

“The league’s never seen a guy like this,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said of the 19-year-old Wembanyama, but fans hoping to see something memorable in his third career game instead watched the Clippers’ collection of 30-year-olds dictate terms from the start.

Clippers starters shot 54%, including 40% on three-pointers. San Antonio starters committed 16 of their team’s 25 turnovers. The Clippers rebounded by keeping the Spurs off the boards, with San Antonio grabbing only six offensive rebounds. That’s 11 fewer than they’d allowed Utah two days earlier.


‘That’s just who we always should have been,” said Paul George, who scored 19 points and played only 28 minutes because the starters rested the entire fourth quarter as the lead grew to as large as 48. “With the defense that we have on this team, we should have always been a team that played and established that intensity from jump. So that’s just how we got to play. That’s who we got to be.”

Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 21 points.

Two nights after attempting just four shots in Utah — including a contested potential game-tying shot in the final seconds while teammate Nicolas Batum stood open along one wing — Russell Westbrook made eight of his 13 shots for 19 points with eight rebounds and a season-low two turnovers. He had committed a combined eight in his first two games.

“It was a long two days for me,” Westbrook said. “I was really upset just because one, I don’t like to lose. It was just hard to take losses and especially games where I think we had opportunity to win is another thing. When we don’t play the way that I know we are capable of, it’s important. And then also just my play in general. I didn’t play the way, the best way I needed to for our team and that was upsetting.”

Norman Powell, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George helped the Clippers claw back into the game only for the Utah Jazz to escape with a 120-118 win.

Oct. 27, 2023

Lue was particularly laudatory of starting forward Robert Covington, still filling in for the injured Terance Mann. Covington drew the bulk of the night’s most-watched assignment: guarding Wembanyama.

Covington scored zero points and took one shot — and the Clippers outscored San Antonio by 25 in his minutes. He said he’d watched tape on Wembanyama in anticipation of his role.

“We played stagnant a few times” against Utah, Covington said. “But tonight, we came out and moved the ball really well.”


Lue has challenged stars George and Leonard to “set the tone” defensively from the opening quarter, and George answered with five steals in the first seven minutes, a career-high for George in a quarter. Even with the Clippers appearing to rush some shots when Wembanyama was in the vicinity, they built a 13-point lead halfway through the opening quarter.

Then Lue rested George and Leonard and the reserves who took their place struggled to score, an issue that is becoming a trend. The Clippers scored only three points over the final five minutes of the first quarter, and their lead was pared to six.

Lue said the team is still learning how to play with his preferred substitution pattern, which would leave Westbrook and Norman Powell together when Leonard and George rest. When that duo returns, Lue said he’d like to pair them with backup guard Bones Hyland “as much as possible. It’s a work in progress, but we will get it down,” Lue added.

The ragged finish begat a rapid response. The Clippers’ 10-2 start to the second quarter widened a lead that was never within single digits the rest of the night.

They scored 33 points in the second quarter, four fewer than San Antonio managed all half while falling behind by 19. It was the fewest points allowed by the Clippers in a first half since April 6, 2022.

Russell Westbrook never played for the Jazz after the Lakers traded him to Utah last season, but the Clippers star was prepared to stay and “be a mentor.”

Oct. 28, 2023

The Clippers’ most jarring failure in Friday’s reality-check loss was the 33 second-chance points they allowed. What puzzled Lue most was Utah’s smaller players consistently beating the Clippers to the boards. George claimed they were “just out of position on rebounding ... and just effort to rebound.”


“We knew coming to the game that we had to be better,” said Lue.

Said Leonard: “It’s a lot better than the last game we played. Not letting the Jazz shoot 20 more times than us. So tonight we limit them to one-chance shots and it was good.”

On Sunday, San Antonio finished with only eight second-chance points. Not even Wembanyama could jolt the Spurs to life.

He influenced how the Clippers played, such as when reserve guard Bones Hyland drove the baseline in the first half, saw Wembanyama waiting near the hoop and threw a pass to the three-point line — to his coach.

With 11 points on four-of-10 shooting and five rebounds, however, Wembanyama did not change the course of this game. He walked to the bench with the Spurs trailing by 27 with 6:55 to play in the final quarter as the Clippers inserted their rookies.

It wasn’t the show many expected but it was the performance the Clippers needed, even this early in the season.