Clippers erase bad memories with dominant win over Kings

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LOS ANGELES — I remember when the Sacramento Kings visited the LA Clippers a little over a year ago last December. It was a Saturday matinee with two days of rest, and both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard had been out for at least the previous five games each while nursing injuries. George and Leonard were listed as questionable, but George was ruled out due to a hamstring tendon injury while Leonard was ruled out due to a sprained ankle.

Fans were messaging me about how upset and disappointed they were. Normally I dismiss that talk, because injury is not an excuse for a team’s substandard performance. But then the Clippers went out and got blown out by the upstart Kings, looking soulless in the process.

Sure, George and Leonard made their healthy returns in the next game. But it was one of the signs that the Clippers weren’t “taking the regular season serious.” After all, that loss to the Kings dropped the Clippers record to 13-11, which was still good enough for a share of sixth place in the 2022-23 Western Conference standings.

Along the same theme, the Kings’ most recent visit to see the Clippers was the first game after the All-Star break. It was Russell Westbrook’s debut, so it was already going to be a spectacle. The Kings had played the previous night in Sacramento, beating the Portland Trail Blazers, so it was a rest-advantage game for the hosting Clippers. You may recall that the Kings defeated the Clippers 176-175 in the second-highest scoring game in NBA history.

What you might not have remembered is how the Clippers blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead, missing an assignment that led to Malik Monk’s game-tying 3 to force the first overtime and George couldn’t play the second overtime because he reached a minute restriction. It was a triumph for the Kings and an embarrassing night for the Clippers.

There’s not much to write about the Clippers hosting the Kings on Dec. 12 2023. There will be no special recall of the 40th anniversary of the Pistons-Nuggets showcase from 1983 and tying it back to Tuesday night’s game. With both teams on the second night of a back-to-back, the Clippers led by as many as 29 points in the first half and by 33 in the second half to win 119-99.

The win marked the fifth straight for the Clippers, the NBA’s longest active win streak. The only other team not to lose a game this month is the Indiana Pacers, and that’s only because the Pacers earned the right to lose the In-Season Tournament championship, a game that does not count in the standings.

Kawhi Leonard had 31 points in just over 31 minutes Tuesday night against the Kings. He didn’t play in the fourth quarter, because the best load management is to blow your opponent out through three quarters.

It was also Leonard’s 23rd game of the season, with no games missed. People thought it was sweet to make Leonard and George the poster boys of the NBA’s Player Participation Policy this past offseason. Times have changed.

“I mean, I talked about this before — coming off of the ACL was definitely — we were definitely monitoring my minutes and my workload to make sure that I stayed healthy,” Leonard said after playing in his fourth zero rest day game of the season, twice as many as he played in last season. “So just being healthy has been good.”

George has also played in every Clippers game this season. He got his first injury scare and did not finish Tuesday night’s game due to what the team called a sore right groin. If anyone should get some time off, it’s George, who entered Tuesday night’s game 10th in the NBA for minutes per game. Also, only seven players in the league have played more than George’s 808 minutes so far this season.

Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said that George’s second-half scratch was precautionary since the Clippers led 70-48 at halftime. Lue offered no formal update on George’s condition, but he did say that George could have played in the second half, while Terance Mann said that George was fine.

Lue did joke how George on the floor diving for loose balls isn’t something he wanted to see due to his past shoulder surgeries. But George is gutting not just games out, but possessions. In December on the second night of a back-to-back. It’s what this team said they were going to do, especially after a nasty six-game losing streak that dropped the Clippers to 12th in the West last month.

“When it’s both of his shoulders, I didn’t like that dive right there,” Lue said. “But it just shows you these guys want to win. And so putting it on the line every single night, playing big minutes, playing in back-to-backs, played every game this year is huge for us.”

Harden has now played in 18 games with George and Leonard. He played only 16 games with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving during his entire tenure with the Brooklyn Nets, including the 2021 postseason. It may only be a 10-8 start, but playing all of these games now promises to lead to something bigger in the spring. After all, the 2011 Miami Heat started 9-8 before reaching the NBA Finals.

“I think since we were so far behind in a sense that we didn’t have a training camp or you look at teams like Boston, whose core has been together for a minute, Milwaukee, even the Lakers, you know what I mean?” Harden said after the Clippers beat the Trail Blazers 132-127 on the front end of the back-to-back on Monday night.

“Just to name a few, whose core has been together for a few years. You know what I mean? See, they already have the advantage of chemistry being together, being in close games and postseasons and things like that. So I think the more amount of games that we can play alongside each other, it’s beneficial for us. And then even tonight was difficult and then tomorrow’s going to be more difficult. We got a fast-paced Sacramento coming in. This just shows a testament to how good we can be.

“And so we come out with the right mindset and we get a win and just continue to build. You know what I mean? We got a long season for it and like I said, these last few games, we’ve been trending in the right direction. So it’s definitely a good feeling.”

The Clippers have responded to climb to seventh in the West with a 13-10 record. George might need a game or two to rest; soft tissue injuries are no joke, and George already told The Athletic that his right knee is still not 100 percent after his season-ending hyperextension in March. But the Clippers are getting great shots and shutting down offenses in December. Only three teams have a higher field goal percentage than the Clippers, and only four teams have allowed a lower field goal percentage since December began.

“Yeah, for sure, especially off of a back-to-back and all,” Leonard said about his satisfaction with a Clippers defense that ranks fifth in efficiency this month after shutting down the Kings Tuesday night. “Both teams played back-to-back tonight, but holding them to 41 percent shooting and 25 from three was great, and limited them to seven offensive rebounds. So yeah, it was a good night for the defensive end.”

There is still more work to do for the Clippers. The standings will dictate the minutes and the workload of the stars. The bench needs to be ready to step up if George or anyone else has to miss time. But as center Ivica Zubac explains, having the stars playing, and winning, inspires the team to do more. Especially after last season.

“It gives us a lot of confidence,” Zubac said. “You know, we’re going to go out there and fight every night. And when we’ve got our two main guys with us every single game, it pushes us to be even better and motivates us. It motivates us. You know, the last few years, sometimes when they were out, it’s kind of a little harder going out there and knowing you don’t have your number one, number two. And having them every game this year, it’s big time for us. And hopefully, we can stay healthy and keep it going.”

(Photo of Kawhi Leonard driving against Keegan Murray: Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

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