LOS ANGELES — When the LA Clippers moved heaven and earth last summer to acquire a pair of the league’s most lethal small forwards, the early glimpses of their ugly 107-104 overtime win over the Boston Celtics were what they imagined.
In the game’s opening possession, the Celtics opted to trap Paul George on his pick-and-roll with center Ivica Zubac. And why not, given that George scored an obscene 88 points in 73 minutes in his first three games as a Clipper over the past week. When George delivered the pass to Zubac, Celtics guard Marcus Smart had to move off Kawhi Leonard over to pick up the big man. Zubac kicked the ball out to Leonard, who drained the 3-pointer.
Three possessions later, George and Leonard traded places. Again, the Celtics trapped the ball-handler — this time, it was Leonard. Smart stunted between Zubac in open space and George out on the perimeter at the same spot Leonard had previously knocked down the 3-ball. At the moment of peak opportunity, Leonard zipped the ball between the trap to George on the weak side — and George replicated the earlier result from long range.
It’s one week before Thanksgiving and the Clippers’ interminable preseason had finally ended, as Leonard and George finally took the floor as teammates for the first time. Their inaugural effort wasn’t a perfect display in symbiosis — at times, it was a slog — which isn’t a surprise for two players who’ve shared exactly one full-contact practice together, when they were on opposing teams. The Clippers’ star wings ran zero pick-and-roll or dribble-handoff plays together on Wednesday, according to Second Spectrum tracking data.
“We need a lot of work, you can see that,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score.”
If the Clippers appeared to be a team still getting acquainted, that’s because they are. Yet the presence of the full squad as constructed, marked a cause for satisfaction, punctuated by a fierce fourth-quarter comeback at Staples Center.
For weeks, Leonard and George have been two ships passing in the training room. George missed the preseason and the first 11 games of the regular season while recovering from a pair of shoulder surgeries. The night before George’s first game as a Clipper last Thursday in New Orleans, Leonard suffered a contusion on his left knee in Houston. When healthy, each has shown his individual brilliance — Leonard as the bully who can use brute force to manufacture space for any shot, George as the all-purpose wing who can score in just about any offensive capacity.
The fully constituted Clippers showed the most promise on the defensive end, where they stifled what was the NBA’s fourth-ranked offense entering Wednesday for much of the night. The Clippers’ roster features a platoon of long and agile defenders capable of guarding multiple positions, playing the gaps, pressuring ball handlers and covering ground in transition.
To wit, the Clippers had both the flexibility and confidence to stick 6-foot-7 Maurice Harkless on Celtics’ All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker, knowing that Patrick Beverley — their own diminutive guard — can hold his own against Boston’s lanky wings, and that there was reliable help if necessary. Determined to thwart Walker, the Clippers threw traps at him selectively. The Clippers’ rotations behind those aggressive attacks were variable — again, not a surprise for units that hadn’t previously logged minutes together — but the Clippers are so athletic, so long and endowed with so much veteran savvy, they were able to perform damage control.
And when the Clippers went with a closing lineup late in the game of Beverley, Leonard, George, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, they switched against the Celtics’ actions. Boston led 86-76 with 6:15 left to play, but the Clippers finished the last 11:15 of the game on a 31-18 run. Outside of two minutes of Harkless time for situational defense, Rivers rolled with that group to lead the charge.
For all the fanfare of Leonard and George making their debut as a tandem against a marquee opponent on national television, the Clippers staged a furious rally in the fourth quarter that was reminiscent of their scrappy teams of recent seasons. Offensively, Leonard and George drew gravity from the Celtics’ defense, but it was the holdovers — Beverley and Williams, in particular — who propelled the Clippers.
“I thought he, literally, single-handedly willed that game with his effort,” Rivers said of Beverley, who was a recipient of a rare game ball.
With the Clippers clinging to a two-point lead with less than a minute remaining in overtime, the Celtics trapped Williams in his pick-and-roll with Harrell. This is one of the league’s most dangerous pick-and-roll combos — a tandem that helped a Clippers team in flux win an improbable 48 games last season. So when Williams shuttled the ball to Harrell, Jayson Tatum had to leave Beverley in the weak side corner to tag Harrell in open space. That left Harrell with an open pocket in the right corner, where he promptly sent the ball Beverley’s way.
There they were, the three remaining castaways from the fateful 2017 Chris Paul trade, stitching together the kind of sequence that helped a transient Clippers team build an identity that attracted a pair of top-line superstars. Leonard and George were the headliners Wednesday, and represent the Clippers’ best hopes for their first title. Yet as Beverley drained the 3-pointer to seal the win, it was the spirit of the overachievers that carried the night.