When the Clippers arrived here late Saturday night, they were without a winning streak and a coach.
After practice Saturday in Los Angeles, which ended the Clippers’ four-game winning streak against Orlando, Tyronn Lue did not join the team on the flight to Oregon as he recovers from what the team is calling a non-COVID-19 illness. The team hopes to “come back soon,” said coach Dan Craig, who took over in Lue’s absence for only his third time as coach.
Craig had two other stints as an NBA assistant over two decades, both while in Miami, and felt quite prepared for this third. He and Lue had several conversations since the group left Los Angeles. Craig, normally the defensive coordinator, then had several conversations with assistant Brendan O’Connor who would add more responsibilities to help him in those roles.
And then there were the chatty conversations with his oldest child, a 7-year-old son who has already caught the basketball bug so badly that Craig found himself reading the Clippers’ scouting reports.
“He’s worried,” Craig said with a smile, “about Lillard.”
No one in the NBA has been more aggressive since the All-Star break than Damian Lillard and his league-leading 37-point average, fueled by a 71-point night on February 26th.
But the Clippers, and not just Craig’s oldest son, read the scouting report.
By sidelining Lillard the way the Clippers couldn’t contain Stephen Curry just four days earlier, the Trail Blazers couldn’t start Sunday. Because of that, the Clippers did it.
Portland Trail Blazers’ Damian Lillard, left, drives against Clippers’ Terance Mann in the first half Sunday.
(Steve Dykes/Associated Press)
In the 117-102 win that improved the Clippers to 38-34, Lillard made just four of his 17 shots and one of his eight 3-pointers. His lack of production was most evident in the clutch time that has so often dominated his career, making just three shots and making one in the fourth quarter. It fueled the Clippers’ dramatic late-game turnaround 27 hours after Orlando 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 pass and somebody else make things happen,” said Eric Gordon, who scored 20 points off the bench, making four of his five threes, and it was. he again gave him cross country minutes, playing in the final 16.
The Clippers watched Curry hang up 50 points on Wednesday. The Clippers won that game, leaving them better prepared for Lillard.
“I think it would have been the other way around, if we had seen Dame early, we would have been prepared for Steph,” said Paul George, who scored a team-high 29 points. “Since we saw Steph early, we were better prepared for Dame. What it really came down to. We had to score and if the other guys make shots, they make shots. But we tried to do as much as possible at Dame.’
Minnesota, Golden State and Phoenix, all in the standings around the Clippers, had a great chance to earn a spot in the Western Conference standings after losing in the previous 24 hours.
Kawhi Leonard, who sprained his elbow but called himself “OK,” had 24 points and Russell Westbrook added nine points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in 34 minutes as the Clippers turned to him to close out the game. days earlier, although the results were drastically different.
Leonard’s return after taking Saturday off — he still hasn’t played back-to-back days — should restore the team’s two-star dynamic. Instead, George committed two fouls within five minutes and went to the bench, where he remained until the start of the second quarter.
He would miss eight of his first nine shots in the first half, and his struggle to find his flow would have been easy to highlight if the rest of the team hadn’t been hurt, as well as a 15-point first quarter lead. He disappeared midway through the second quarter. Leonard scored eight of the Clippers’ 10 points off a stretch in the first quarter as the team couldn’t keep in check against a sluggish Trail Blazers team with the 29th-ranked defense since the All-Star break, which lacks a team. “You’ve got the grit or the grit that’s necessary to win really big,” coach Chauncey Billups said bluntly before tipoff. “You can point to many reasons, including me.”
And even if they took it to the wire, they couldn’t comfortably put away Portland’s 23rd-ranked offense, even on one of Lillard’s worst shooting nights in an otherwise red-hot season. Late in the third quarter, Watford Blazers forward Trendon caught every defender off guard when he took a handoff near the elbow and, instead of tipping the ball over a guard, spun and went in for a layup. That prompted a conversation between center Ivica Zubac and Marcus Morris Sr.
It was one of the last glaring mistakes of the night.
George came back in the second half to score 10 points in the third quarter, making six of his eight shots at the rim or just short of his feet. He scored nine points in the fourth. He made a total of 10 free throws in the second half, which the Clippers believe is the downhill offense that unlocks their offense.
“I come out and I have a certain way I want to attack and a certain way I want to play, and then it usually goes to s and it doesn’t work,” George said. “But to be honest, when I have the opportunity to go to the bench, reflect what’s going on, see what’s going on, I play mentally a lot, honestly. Play the actions, the plays, how they care for me. And sometimes I have to tell myself to slow down. Slow down, they’ll give me the answers to the test. Calm. read it And take my time, that usually always works.’
It worked on Sunday. And when it was over, as Craig triumphantly entered the locker room for the first time as an acting coach, the Clippers mobbed him with water glasses, frustrating the longtime assistant.