Two days after the Clippers played what their coach, Tyronn Lue, described as their finest basketball of an up-and-down season, players sat in folding chairs Monday morning inside their practice facility to rewatch what Lue had also deemed their “blueprint” for offensive success.
To drill home the point, a whiteboard in front of the assembled chairs listed the season-high marks from Saturday’s blowout victory against the Spurs: passes, ball reversals, assist opportunity rate, effective field-goal percentage.
The numbers — particularly the Clippers’ 329 passes, as tracked by Second Spectrum, a stark contrast to their fourth-from-the-bottom season average of 262 — backed up with data the litmus test Lue has often referenced as simply playing the “right way.”
A strained right hamstring tendon sidelined Paul George for Monday night’s 121-114 win over Utah at Crypto.com Arena offered a reminder of why there is a premium on continuing to do so, as the Clippers improved to 11-7, only half a game behind the Jazz’s Western Conference-leading record.
In a first half that produced numbers worthy of Lue’s whiteboard, the Clippers scored 10 unanswered late in the first quarter capped by backup point guard John Wall’s 41-foot heave that swished through the net. Wall celebrated a 10-point lead by strumming an imaginary guitar, and he was just getting started. Wall, who came off the bench to replace Kawhi Leonard, kept himself and the ball moving at a breakneck speed. Lue set a goal of 20 transition points — Wall helped them score 17 in the first half, the kind of easy points the Clippers must generate with Paul George, one of their top shot creators, unavailable.
“Making the right play in transition, which was big for us,” he said.
One game after posting 15 assists, Wall sprinted past the last line of Utah’s transition defense for layups and found Norman Powell for short jumpers and Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum for spot-up three-pointers as the Clippers built a 17-point lead 9:50 before halftime. Instead of the customary second-quarter lull, the Clippers fired back after their lead dwindled to eight, extending it to 13, while assisting on 17 of their 26 baskets.
To open the third quarter, Marcus Morris Sr. stood atop the three-point arc and eyed Leonard cutting all alone along the baseline toward the rim before firing a pass for a dunk and eight-point lead.
Then it was as though a different team appeared when Leonard checked out. Wall became the Clippers’ chief distributor again — this time, in passes to the Jazz. He finished with as many turnovers, eight, as assists and never played in the fourth.
Box-outs were nonexistent en route to allowing Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen six rebounds in the quarter — one more than the Clippers collected as a team. When a ball went to the floor, no Clippers went to the floor to corral it, and Utah’s hustle led to a bucket on the way to winning the quarter by 15 points.
But the lesson of making the simple play was not one the Clippers had to learn the hard way. In the fourth quarter, Jackson, who scored 27 points — his third consecutive game with at least 20 — attacked the paint off the dribble and found open shooters. There were only two Clippers turnovers. Powell scored nine of his 30 points off the bench in the final quarter by doing exactly what the Clippers envisioned when they traded for him last season, earning seven free throws with his to-the-rim drives.
“Sixth man of the year, that should be his goal,” Lue said.
And holding on to a 117-112 lead with one minute remaining, Amir Coffey stood in front of a barreling Talen Horton-Tucker and drew a critical charge to preserve a win built on the habits Lue has so badly wanted to see.
A strained right hamstring tendon sidelined George, and the loss of the team’s leading scorer for an undetermined about of time lowers the offense’s margin for error. It was a different diagnosis than the sore right knee that initially knocked George out after only 15 highly effective minutes Saturday, and one that will keep him day to day, though Lue said the All-Star averaging 23.6points per game felt fine.
George’s absence, coming so soon after the Clippers had appeared almost finally whole following Leonard’s return from a knee injury that cost him 12games over three weeks, was a new variation on the theme of the last two Clippers seasons, a span that has seen them rarely healthy at the same time. Additionally, there is no clarity on how soon guard Luke Kennard can return from a calf strain.
But whether healthy or with holes in their rotation, Lue has wanted a through-line to emerge of his team playing his definition of the right way.
“Just make the simple play,” he said before tipoff. “The defense is gonna show you what they’re giving you, and we gotta make those plays. And so we’ve been harping on it all year. It’s early on in the season, but we do have to get better with that.”
Monday night was a demonstration in the power of doing just that — and the pitfalls when not.