When the Clippers arrived here late Saturday, they were without their winning streak and their coach.
After coaching Saturday in a loss to Orlando in Los Angeles that ended the Clippers’ turnaround at four consecutive wins, Tyronn Lue did not join the team on its flight to Oregon while recovering from what the team called a non-COVID-19 illness. The team expects him “back soon,” said associate head coach Dan Craig, who took over as acting coach in Lue’s absence for only the third time.
Craig had stepped into the big role on two other occasions during his two decades as an NBA assistant, both while in Miami, and felt amply prepared for this third. He and Lue had multiple conversations since the team departed Los Angeles. Craig, typically 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 conversations leading up to tip-off he’d had with his oldest child, a 7-year-old son who already has caught the basketball bug so badly that Craig has 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, fueled by his 71-point night on Feb. 26.
But the Clippers, and not only Craig’s oldest child, had read the scouting report.
With the Clippers spurning Lillard in ways they could not contain Stephen Curry only four days earlier, the Trail Blazers could not get going Sunday. Because of it, the Clippers did.
In a 117-102 victory that improved the Clippers to 38-34, Lillard made just four of his 17 shots and one of his eight three-pointers. His lack of production was most visible in the clutch time he has so often dominated throughout his career, taking only three shots in the fourth quarter and making one. It fueled a drastic turnaround from the Clippers’ late-game play only 27 hours after Orlando had 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 make the pass and make somebody else make things happen,” said Eric Gordon, who scored 20 points off the bench, making four of his five three-pointers, and was again entrusted with crunch-time minutes, playing the final 16.
The Clippers had watched Curry hang 50 points on them Wednesday. The Clippers won that game — and left better prepared for Lillard.
“I think it would’ve been vice versa, if we would’ve saw Dame early, we would’ve been prepared 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 down to. We had to dial in on him and if other guys make shots, they make shots. But we tried to do as much as possible on Dame.”
It was a prime opportunity to gain ground in the packed Western Conference standings after Minnesota, Golden State and Phoenix, all surrounding the Clippers in the standings, had lost in the previous 24 hours.
Kawhi Leonard, who took an elbow to the back but called himself “OK,” had 24 points and Russell Westbrook added nine points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 34 minutes, the Clippers turning to him to close the game just as they had a day earlier, though with drastically different results.
The return of Leonard after he rested Saturday — he still is not playing on consecutive days — was supposed to bring back the team’s two-star dynamic. Instead George drew two fouls within five minutes and went to the bench, where he stayed until the second quarter’s start.
He would 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 had not been affected, as well, as their 15-point first-quarter lead disappeared midway through the second quarter. Outside of a first-quarter stretch in which Leonard scored eight of the Clippers’ 10 points, the team couldn’t maintain control against a languishing Trail Blazers team with the 29th-ranked defense since the All-Star break, a team that does not “have the grit or the toughness that’s necessary to win really big,” coach Chauncey Billups said frankly before tipoff. “You can point to a lot of reasons, me included.”
And though they led wire-to-wire, they could not comfortably put away Portland’s 23rd-ranked offense, even on one of Lillard’s poorest shooting nights of an otherwise incandescent season. Late in the third quarter, Blazers forward Trendon Watford caught every defender unaware when he took a handoff near the elbow and, instead of flipping the ball to a guard, spun and walked into a layup. That spurred a chat between center Ivica Zubac and forward Marcus Morris Sr.
It was one of the last obvious miscues of the night.
George returned in the second half to score 10 points in the third quarter, with six of his eight shots at or within feet of the rim. He added nine points in the fourth. In all, he took 10 free throws in the second half, the kind of downhill attacks the Clippers believe unlock their offense.
“I come 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 s— and it doesn’t work,” George said. “But honestly, when I get that chance to go to the bench, kind of reflect what’s going on, see what’s going on, I play a lot of it through my head, honestly. Play the actions, the plays, how they’re guarding me. And then sometimes I just gotta tell myself to slow down. Slow down, they’ll give me the answers to the test. Slow down. Read it. And take my time, that usually always works.”
It worked Sunday. And when it was over as Craig entered the locker room victorious for the first time as an acting coach, the Clippers mobbed him with water cups, dousing the longtime assistant.
Source: LA Times