Losing streak: Paul George, Kawhi Leonard power back to shuffle the Clippers

The Clippers entered this season believing their depth and talent would set them apart in a class of their own in the West.

That’s what they did. In the first 67 games, they have undergone a remarkable transformation, from what many in the organization thought would be one of the best teams in the NBA to perhaps the most confusing. And over the final 12 minutes on Sunday, a franchise that appeared to be headed for freefall went full speed ahead to close out its sweetest and most needed win of the season, a 135-129 victory over Memphis.

“It felt like the stakes were high,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

With his team trailing by as few as 14 at home to a short-handed opponent lacking stars, with time running out on a postseason push, Luek brought up a topic he’s discussed publicly for days with his players, whose losing streak stretched to five and the Clippers. achieved the infamous distinction of being the only team in the Western Conference still undefeated since the All-Star break.

“Just say mental toughness, show some resilience,” Lue said. “Keep fighting, keep fighting.”

Behind Paul George’s 42 points and Kawhi Leonard’s 34, including 15 in the fourth quarter, the Clippers ended a five-game losing streak and earned a win when, at one point, their championship hopes appeared lost.

After giving Memphis 51 points in the third quarter, the Clippers allowed just 17 in the fourth quarter.

Kawhi Leonard gave the Clippers a 122-121 lead in the fourth quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

“We brought another level and we played hard and we played hard,” George said. “I felt like we just had a winning spirit tonight.”

Early in the season, the stretch of the schedule after the All-Star break presented itself as an opportunity to rest and adjust for the playoffs.

Instead, a streak that followed one-point losses at Denver, San Francisco and Sacramento became the key to survival to stay in the postseason picture.

And that’s why Sunday’s stakes were heavier than usual, with the Clippers’ nearly full-strength roster – down only by Norm Powell and his sore left shoulder – no excuses against Memphis.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is fouled by Grizzlies' David Roddy in the second quarter on Sunday.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard is fouled by Grizzlies’ David Roddy in the second quarter on Sunday. Leonard finished with 34 points.

(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

Ja Morant’s All-Star streak is at least two games away, with his timetable for a return unclear amid an NBA investigation into the guard’s Instagram video of him posing with a gun. Starting big man Steven Adams hurt his knee. A ruptured Achilles tendon late last week sidelined athletic wing Brandon Clarke for the rest of the season. And too many technical fouls led to a penalty for main booster Dillon Brooks.

“It’s been a good start to the night for us,” Lue said. “Especially after being unlucky, and our luck was so unlucky, we even got struck by lightning,” a reference to when the team’s plane was hit en route to Denver last week. “It’s been a tough week and a half, so we have to keep fighting.”

In moments, they were reminded why they’re treading water, why there’s little hope left to catch their potential as they improve to 34-33, and why, as Leonard and George warned, Sunday’s furious finish will do nothing to change the team’s status. on-again, off-again intensity without sustaining the effort.

“This means nothing if we don’t accept what we can do and what we can be. So we’ll see,” said George. “If we don’t treat the next game the same way we treated that fourth quarter tonight, what do we do here?”

Instead of tweaking the starting lineup, Lue went back to his standard five of Leonard, George, Russell Westbrook, Ivica Zubac and Marcus Morris Sr. Even though the Clippers still looked out of sorts at halftime, Morris had little impact after losing all four. shots, Lue started Nicolas Batum over Morris in the second half.

Within a minute, the five-point halftime lead had expanded to 11. But less than eight minutes later, with the defense crumbling again and three largely avoidable turnovers pushing the Grizzlies to within seven points, the Clippers pulled ahead by 10. And when Memphis booked Santi. Aldama turned Terance Mann and finished with a drive at the free throw line, and Desmond Bane followed on his next possession with a 3-pointer in transition to extend the lead to 16.

The Grizzlies’ 51 points in the third marked the highest point for a defense that has been among the worst in the NBA over the past two months.

“We can’t do that,” Leonard said.

Then came the avalanche, as the Grizzlies couldn’t score for nearly six minutes as the Clippers scored 17 straight points. Their run was a Westbrook dunk and foul. The run was 24-2.

Eric Gordon scored 17 off the bench and Mason Plumlee added 15 points.

“We are staying together; no one is pointing fingers at each other,” Leonard said. “…Hopefully we can have some change.”

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