When the Clippers arrived here Saturday night, they didn’t have their winning streak or their coach.
After working out Saturday in a loss to Orlando in Los Angeles that ended the Clippers’ four-game win streak, Tyronn Lue did not join the team on its flight to Oregon while he recovered from what the team called an illness. which is not COVID-19. The team expects him to “be back soon,” said associate head coach Dan Craig, who took over as interim coach in Lue’s absence for the third time.
Craig had taken the lead two other times during his two decades as an NBA assistant, both in Miami, and he felt amply prepared for this third. He and Lue have had multiple conversations since the team left Los Angeles. Craig, normally the defensive coordinator, then had multiple conversations with the assistant who would add more responsibilities to help him with those duties, Brendan O’Connor.
And then there were the pre-ad conversations he’d had with his eldest son, a 7-year-old who’d already caught the basketball bug so badly that Craig found him reading Clippers scouting reports.
“He’s worried,” Craig said with a smile, “about Lillard.”
No one in the NBA since the All-Star break had been more devastating offensively than Damian Lillard and his league-leading 37 points per game average, boosted by his 71-point night on February 26.
But the Clippers, and not just Craig’s eldest son, had read the scouting report.
With the Clippers turning down Lillard in ways they couldn’t contain Stephen Curry just four days earlier, the Trail Blazers couldn’t get going on Sunday. That’s why the Clippers did it.
in a 117-102 win In improving the Clippers to 38-34, Lillard made just four of his 17 shots and one of eight 3-pointers. His lack of production was most visible in the crunch time he has dominated so often throughout his career, taking just three shots in the fourth quarter and hitting one. He drove a drastic late-game turnaround for the Clippers just 27 hours after Orlando scored 39 in the final frame. The Trail Blazers scored 19.
“We wanted to be physical with Lillard and we always wanted him to just pass and have someone else make things happen,” said Eric Gordon, who scored 20 points off the bench, making four of his five 3-pointers, and was again trusted with minutes. crucial, playing the last 16.
The Clippers had seen Curry hang 50 points on them on Wednesday. The Clippers won that game and left better prepared for Lillard.
“I think it would have been the other way around, if we had seen Dame early, we would have been ready for Steph,” said Paul George, who scored a team-high 29 points. “The fact that we saw Steph early, we were better prepared for Dame. It’s really what it came to. We had to mark him and if other guys take shots, they take shots. But we try to do as much as possible at Dame.”
It was an excellent opportunity to gain ground in the packed Western Conference standings after Minnesota, Golden State and Phoenix, all surrounding the Clippers in the standings, had all lost in the previous 24 hours.
Kawhi Leonard, who took an elbow in the back but called himself “OK,” scored 24 points and Russell Westbrook added nine points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 34 minutes, and the Clippers called on him to close out the game just as they had. in a day. before, albeit with drastically different results.
Leonard’s return from a bye on Saturday (he still doesn’t play on back-to-back days) was supposed to bring back the team’s two-star dynamic. Instead, George committed two fouls in five minutes and went to the bench, where he remained until the start of the second quarter.
He’d miss eight of his first nine shots in the first half, and his struggle to find a flow would have been easy to spotlight if the rest of his team hadn’t been affected, too, like their 15-point lead in the first quarter. he disappeared midway through the second quarter. Outside of a first-quarter stretch in which Leonard scored eight of the Clippers’ 10 points, the team was unable to maintain control against a Trail Blazers team languishing with 29th-ranked defense since the All-Star break. , a team that doesn’t “have the grit or toughness to really win big,” coach Chauncey Billups said candidly before kickoff. “You can point to many reasons, including me.”
And while they led from wire to wire, they couldn’t comfortably save Portland’s 23.rd-Rated offense, even on one of Lillard’s worst shooting nights in an otherwise incandescent season. Late in the third quarter, Blazers forward Trendon Watford caught all the defenders off guard when he made a pass near the elbow and, instead of passing the ball to a guard, spun and walked for a layup. . That sparked a conversation between center Ivica Zubac and forward Marcus Morris Sr.
It was one of the last glaring mistakes of the night.
George came back in the second half to score 10 points in the third quarter, making six of his eight shots at or within feet of the rim. He added nine more points in the fourth. In all, he made 10 free throws in the second half, the kind of downhill drives the Clippers believe unlock his offense.
“I go out and have a certain way that I want to attack and a certain way that I want to play, and then it usually goes to shit and doesn’t work out,” George said. “But honestly, when I get a chance to go to the bench, reflect on what’s going on, see what’s going on, I think in my head a lot, honestly. Play the actions, the plays, how they are protecting me. And then sometimes I just have to tell myself to slow down. Slow down, they’ll give me the test answers. Decelerate. read it. And take my time, that usually always works.”
It worked on Sunday. And when it was over when Craig walked into the locker room victorious for the first time as an acting coach, the Clippers pelted him with glasses of water, dousing the longtime assistant.