Clippers fall to Pelicans in Paul George's debut
The LA Clippers finally welcomed their second star to the lineup, as Paul George played his first game of the season. But without Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley, the Clippers struggled on the defensive end, ultimately falling to New Orleans 132-127. LA falls to 7-5 on the season, now 0-3 without Leonard in the lineup.
After missing all of preseason and the first 11 games rehabbing two shoulder surgeries, George looked midseason smooth on the offensive end. He scored 10 points in the first quarter on 4-of-7 shooting and finished with 33 points, the fourth-highest total by a Clipper in his debut. George was also the quickest to 30 points in any team debut, needing less than 25 minutes.
The Clippers have struggled shooting threes to start the season, ranking 23rd in the NBA at 33.1%, but George immediately stood out for his ability to seamlessly launch triples coming off screens and on pull-ups. The versatility of his 3-point jumper is unmatched on the LA roster, and he knocked down 3-of-5 Thursday.
Head coach Doc Rivers called George's debut "sensational." He told The Athletic postgame, "He’s not only a catch-and-shoot guy, he’s a dribble guy. He’s also a post player. He did all three phases of the game offensively.”
George was less sanguine about his performance, saying he thought he was terrible and it felt like his first preseason game, though his shoulders felt good. He may have been referring more to his defense, which was a team-wide struggle for the Clippers.
A night after holding the Rockets to a 99.0 offensive rating (per Cleaning the Glass), the Clippers lost their defensive verve against the Pelicans. Jrue Holiday was able to get wherever he wanted on the floor out of the pick-and-roll, including two dagger 3-pointers in the final minutes to turn a one-point deficit into a New Orleans victory. Holiday scored 36 points on 24 shot attempts, adding in 7 assists and 6 steals, and was the best player on the court.
The Clippers were outhustled on the glass as well, as the Pelicans outrebounded them 52-37, including 19 offensive rebounds that led to 22 second-chance points.
As Rivers said afterwards, it's not often that a team shoots 55 percent from the field and still loses the game, but that's the situation the Clippers found themselves in with their lackluster defensive effort.
In fairness to the Clippers, they were on the second night of a back-to-back – a game that went down to the wire – and they were also missing two of their best defenders in Leonard and Beverley. The team has relied heavily on Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell to generate offense without its superstars on the court, but both players have defensive warts, particularly Williams. Despite his 31 points and 9 assists, Williams was a minus-20 in 37 minutes.
Nevertheless, with an incomplete roster on the court, this game was ultimately about evaluating George and letting him start to establish a rhythm with his new teammates. Foul trouble (he picked up four in the first half) hindered him to some extent, but he looked confident on the ball, comfortable receiving contact, and ready to add a new dimension to the Clippers offense.
"I got a lot to get back to just from my performance, my defense and just for the flow of the game and then just, I haven’t had any time to get a feel for this speed in a long time," George told the Los Angeles Times postgame. "It’s just good to get this one under my belt."
George will likely get to team up with Leonard for the first time when the Clippers return home Saturday to face the Atlanta Hawks. If a rusty Paul George can still dominate this easily as the number one scoring option, the Hawks could be in for a world of hurt when the two stars take the floor together.