“Fun as hell” is how Patrick Beverley described the debut of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to ESPN’s Jorge Sedano after the Clippers’ 107–104 win over the Celtics on Wednesday. L.A. finally got its two superstars on the court at the same time, and the results—as could be expected for a debut—were somewhat mixed. The Clips won in what could have been anybody’s game. Most importantly, the team didn’t produce any reason to doubt its rosy long-term outlook after the first night of the Kawhi-PG experience. Here are three thoughts on the duo’s debut.
1. The Clippers’ depth paid off.
The beauty of the Clips’ roster construction isn’t merely what they have at the top, but everyone else’s proficiency in their respective roles. L.A.’s supporting cast was just as instrumental in Wednesday’s victory as its stars. Lou Williams was the team’s leading scorer with 27 points, including a couple huge threes in the fourth quarter. Beverley added four threes of his own, including the eventual game-winner.
Beverley’s final three was particularly revealing about what makes L.A. dangerous. With the Clips nursing a 104–102 lead, Williams initiated a high pick-and-roll with Montrezl Harrell. Lou’s scoring prowess demanded a trap, which freed up Harrell on a roll to the basket. As Trez caught a pass while headed toward the lane, Beverley’s defender crashed the paint, leaving Bev wide open in the right corner. Harrell made the easy pass and Beverley hit the easy three. Kawhi and PG weren’t even involved on the play, simply providing elite spacing for their talented teammates to take advantage. How many teams in the NBA can afford to have their two best players not even touch the ball on a critical overtime possession?
2. L.A. flashed its halfcourt defense‘s potential.
The Clips’ defense has been pretty good through the early part of the season, though not the insane, lockdown unit most expected. They showed another level they could reach on key possessions Wednesday. Kawhi and PG played some borderline unfair individual defense down the stretch. Leonard had Jayson Tatum in a vice late in OT, while George took on the task of slowing down an (overly) aggressive Marcus Smart. In a game with playoff-level intensity, the Clips provided a look at what they can do when the action slows down. Beverley can chase opposing guards. And Leonard and George can switch between wings without any worry of a dropoff. (Even Williams got in on the action, forcing a turnover against Kemba Walker when Walker tried to hunt him at one point.) Opposing offenses will have to be creative in how they attack L.A. late in close contests, because Beverley, George and Leonard can pretty much guard anyone on any given possession. Expect Lou Will to be a constant target, but Doc Rivers has more options than basically any other coach when it comes to defending No. 1 options.
3. The offense will take time.
Wednesday’s game was “ugly,” according to Doc Rivers and pretty much everyone who watched. While the Clips shot well from the outside, connecting on nearly 38% of their threes, they also turned the ball over 23 times, 10 of which were courtesy of Kawhi and PG. On one hand, it did look like Leonard and George were able to create several catch-and-shoot opportunities for one another when they shared the floor. Both are already accomplished long-range snipers, and them providing those types of look for each other should really help the offensive efficiency in the long run. (More catch-and-shoots could also help Kawhi’s lagging three-point percentage finally jump up.) The volume of turnovers does bring into question the one mild concern surrounding the Clippers—do they need a traditional point guard?
Leonard, to his credit, has impressed this season as a ballhandler, and his playmaking has improved dramatically from when he first became a go-to guy in San Antonio. But it’s possible he will struggle against hard traps and blitzes, particularly against well-coached defensive teams like the Celtics, who can compensate for aggressive defense with dependable rotations on the backend. George is obviously wildly talented but has never quite been an expert facilitator. If there’s one thing to really keep an eye on moving forward, it’s how the Clippers will take care of the ball against other top-notch defenses.