The back hallway inside Crypto.com Arena connecting the home and visiting locker rooms is often a lively spot, as employees line up for the post-game meal and players exchange high-fives with executives on their way out of the building. .
As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, the season was at its quietest, as the Clippers wondered if they had lost more than one game critical to their postseason standings.
Half an hour earlier, with 4 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, All-Star forward Paul George’s right knee buckled and he folded backwards as he touched down after grabbing a rebound against Oklahoma City’s Luguentz Dort.
George fell onto the pitch and lay there for minutes as his teammates surrounded him as medical staff knelt on him. He walked off the court without putting any weight on his leg, a staff member under each shoulder helping him carry him toward the locker room.
Before coach Tyronn Lue met with reporters after a 101-100 loss, snuggled up with team executives in the hallway outside the locker room. George was still being re-evaluated, Lue said. George was carried out of the arena in the back of a cart, with his right leg extended.
If George, who dealt with soreness in his right knee this season but earlier this month declared himself as healthy as ever, is wasted time, then the Clippers’ postseason ambitions might need to be reassessed as well, a star of the caliber of George difficult to replace. , even on one of the deepest rosters in the NBA. He averaged 28.3 points, six rebounds and five assists in his previous seven games before Tuesday, a streak that coincided with a 5-2 record.
“The next guy,” star forward Kawhi Leonard said.
The Clippers took another blow on the final possession when Leonard grabbed a defensive rebound with 21 seconds remaining and dribbled up with the Thunder leading by one.
Leonard was unable to dribble past Dort’s strong defense, the ball never leaving Leonard’s hands as he struggled to find space. His go-ahead shot attempt was taken after the final buzzer, and Leonard called a foul.
“They shrunk the floor,” Leonard said. “It’s another explanation that we just didn’t open the floor up for each other. …I’ll take care of him. I definitely should have fired.”
Leonard finished with 21 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals, George 18 points with seven rebounds, five assists and three steals.
The Clippers are 38-35, a game behind fourth-place Phoenix, and seventh-place Oklahoma City is 36-36, 1 1/2 games behind the Clippers after beating them for the third time. in the same number of tries.
Four years after the Clippers traded Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to facilitate the deal for George who also scored Leonard’s free agency signing, Gilgeous-Alexander scored 31 points to lead the Thunder.
The Clippers’ start indicated that they understood the importance of the game. A team that has often found itself playing from behind while adjusting to three new rotation players (the Clippers have a negative net rating through the first quarters since the All-Star break) took control by sheer force. In four minutes, Gilgeous-Alexander’s dribble had been ripped off three times by the men on the other side of the exchange, George and Leonard, the latest change of possession leading to a thunderous dunk from Russell Westbrook, who a decade ago originated the role of All-Base point guard Star Thunder.
The burst of defensive energy provided an 18-4 lead. And when it disappeared, and the Clippers missed 11 straight shots, Oklahoma City responded with a 19-4 run.
By halftime, the Clippers trailed by five and one key player.
In the midst of a brutal shooting display, in which the Clippers starters failed to make a 3-pointer in the first half, Leonard and George combined to make 5 of 16 shots and the team missed 8 of 15 free throws, the Clippers they also suffered the loss of Terance. Mann. The backup shooting guard was ejected 4:24 before halftime by official Curtis Blair after a couple of quick technicals.
According to the referee, Mann directed profanity at him, upset that a Leonard hit and the score had not called for a foul (Leonard, who also received a technical, said the referee later apologized), but the technicals were issued in succession. so quick that his teammates went wide-eyed as Mann headed toward the tunnel and locker room, his night ended after eight points in 11 minutes.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s league-leading 1,451 drives this season had generated a league-high 338 free-throw attempts, and after his early drives had gone nowhere against the aggressive defense of Leonard and George , began solving his defensive puzzles with 12 points in the third quarter, including five baskets inside the paint.
The highlight, helping the Clippers lead by one entering the fourth, was quickly replaced by concern over George’s departure.