Clippers outlast Celtics in OT in successful debut of Kawhi, George combo

NBA.com Global on Nov 21, 2019 07:00 PM
Clippers win in successful debut of Kawhi, George combo
Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George, left, and forward Kawhi Leonard sit on the bench during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

LOS ANGELES -- It took three weeks and 15 games into the season, but better late than never for the Clippers to finally hold their real Opening Night.

They were finally whole on Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) when Kawhi Leonard and Paul George shared the floor together, suiting up against the Celtics. Before that, the only significant time spent in each others company in uniform was last summer when they were introduced as the newest and most important members of the franchise. It was an event that shook the league and made the Clippers the title favorites; given the club’s zero championships, that glowing projection had never been written or spoken by anyone before.

And, predictably, the league will not be conquered in a day or more accurately, a night where the Clippers defeated a Boston team holding the best record in the East but did so haphazardly at times before showing enough spunk in the fourth quarter and overtime to confirm their arrival as a team to be believed.

Perhaps these sketchy performances will be expected from the Clippers here in the early season because George missed the first 11 games and Leonard six. Therefore, the Clippers will reek of training camp smell until their stars develop better harmony and the rotation gets in sync.

Because at times in the 107-104 win over the Celtics, the Clippers passed up shots and were careless with their decision making and also their passing, perhaps in an effort to please one another. George and Leonard are the clear alpha dogs and not only were they too deferential to each other during stretches, so were their teammates, mostly to a fault.

“Twenty-three turnovers,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers, with a sense of resignation. “We were so sloppy. We were trying not to get in each others’ way. We need a lot of work. We’re trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”

It’ll take more practice sessions to clean that up and gain a clearer understanding of roles and situations and flow. Because of injuries, the Clippers, George and Leonard simply haven’t had that chance.

“We were thinking in the office earlier today if we ever had two (stars) getting ready to play in a game, and they never had one practice together,” said Rivers. “We couldn’t come up with one.”

Well, don’t be misled; the Clippers’ glass is not exactly half empty. There was another aspect to the Clippers in their sneak preview “opener” that left much to be admired. They turn scrappy when cornered and fight when threatened. This was apparent when the Celtics snatched a 10-point lead late in the fourth and were rolling. In these situations, teams tend to discover what’s in their DNA and whether their desire level belongs in elite company, even here in mid-November.

Here’s the results, then: George is at the very least Leonard’s equal as a scorer; Lou Williams can take over games even from Leonard and George when necessary; Pat Beverley never runs empty on energy or fire; and Leonard as he showed last spring always seems to deliver in the clutch with a decisive play.

“Once we got started,” said Williams, “we saw how special this team can be.”

Williams helped erase the Celtics’ lead by scoring 13 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter and caused major problems in the final few moments of regulation. Remember, he’s a lethal scorer in his own right and in last year’s playoffs, without George or Leonard, he carried the Clippers late in games.

George finished with 25 points and drew double teams, which created open shots for teammates. It has been a torrid start for him this season since returning from shoulder surgery and rehab; he has 123 points in 110 minutes and hit the game-winner a few days ago against the Thunder.

One of those who benefited from the extra attention given to George and Leonard was Beverley. The Celtics picked their poison and their scouting report, no surprise, told them to let Beverley beat them. Ordinarily that’s the proper strategy; Beverley isn’t a scorer nor does the ball usually find him in tense moments.

But Beverley punished Boston with four three-pointers (in seven tries) and was an all-around menace, with a career-high 16 rebounds, seven assists and two steals with his 14 points. His feisty tenor set the tone for the Clippers defensively late in the game; the Celtics have the best offensive efficiency in the league yet managed a rather tame 30 points in the fourth quarter and five-minute OT.

“They were trying to leave guys open,” said Rivers. “They left Pat open. They took the risk. He single-handedly willed that game for us.”

Finally: At the OT buzzer, Leonard reached and deflected Kemba Walker’s potential game-tying shot.

The development of the Leonard-George combo obviously will play huge in whatever success the Clippers have this season. It seems a match made in basketball heaven. Both bring similar styles and are unselfish. They can shoot the mid-range or three. They can attack the rim -- see Kawhi’s poster dunk Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) that set social media ablaze -- and besides averaging over 25 per game, they obviously bring the goods defensively. George is a four-time member of the All-Defensive Team while Kawhi is twice the Defensive Player of the Year.

Kawhi and George are no longer assigned the toughest assignment every night. They can take turns guarding the other team’s big scorer; George didn’t have this luxury in Indiana and Oklahoma City, and Leonard for much of his time in San Antonio and all last season with the Raptors.

And they can switch on and off in the same game. For example, expect to see this happen Friday when league scoring leader James Harden comes to town. Last week, Harden torched the Clippers for 47 points. This time, he’ll see Kawhi in his grill for stretches and then get George, with a little Pat Bev thrown in for irritant’s sake.

The elephant in the room is Kawhi’s health. Nobody expects him to play every game the remainder of the season, but he’s already on pace to miss 30. Last year in Toronto he missed 22. The good news is the Clippers can win without him provided George remains healthy.

The better news is the Clippers are finally intact and complete right now, even though there are kinks to straighten and flaws to correct and a system that needs to be reset.

“We want to figure out how to win games and then become a good team,” said Rivers. “We’re a work in progress.”

Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here, and follow him on Twitter.

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