After playing two games without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the LA Clippers were fortunate to have their two stars return to the lineup on Friday night. Their impact was felt immediately as they helped separate the team from the Orlando Magic early and ultimately cruise to a 116-90 victory.
Despite a tie at the end of the first quarter, this contest was never all that close. The Clippers led by as many as 27 points late in the game and dominated Orlando's starters from start to finish, outscoring them 76-39. Even Nikola Vucevic, who came into the night averaging 23.6 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, was limited to just 10 points and six boards on 4-of-13 shooting from the field.
It was the perfect time for the duo to return, and fans should feel lucky that they didn't end up missing the entire road trip. The Clippers did look fine without them in their win over the Miami Heat on Thursday night, but the second half of the trip should be much more difficult.
LA will travel to the Big Apple on Sunday for an early afternoon meeting with the New York Knicks before their back-to-back set against the Brooklyn Nets and Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 2 and 3.
Building this momentum up now is key, and it should only help the Clippers as they look to stay near the top of the Western Conference standings.
Let's take a closer look at a few other things that stood out from LA's big win on Friday night.
20-Point Leads Return With Leonard and George
The Clippers have been especially prone to building massive leads this season, and that trend returned on Friday with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
LA hit that mark early in the fourth quarter, which were George's final minutes of the contest. The rest of the team didn't look back after the Clippers' stars went to the bench, though — instead, they continued to build their lead up to 27 shortly before the game came to a close.
George and Leonard were instrumental in distancing the Clippers from the Magic. Even though neither player was on the floor for more than 29 minutes, the two still managed to combine for 50 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists and two steals. Their three-point shooting was shaky, going just 5-of-15 from beyond the arc, but they made up for it by hitting a combined 68% of their twos.
On the season, the Clippers have now led by 20 points or more in 11 of their first 20 contests. They've gone 10-1 in such games, with the only loss coming to the Golden State Warriors.
Pretty good for a team that still considers itself to be a work in progress.
What Chemistry Concerns?
Last season's Clippers were good, but the team could never escape conversations of poor on-court chemistry. Not all of it was necessarily the team's fault — injuries kept key players like George and Leonard out of the rotation for large amounts of time, and new additions like Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris didn't get much time to mesh with the team before the season was suspended in March.
It does, however, seem clear that a decent portion of those issues were tied to personnel. For the most part, this year's team resembles the one we saw last year — but these guys seem to genuinely enjoy playing with each other, which was never overly-obvious last season.
One play, in particular, captured the feel of the 2021 Clippers.
In the final seconds of the third quarter, with both the shot and game clock winding down, Leonard began to look for his shot. Facing a double-team, he looked to Jackson, who cut from the top of the key to the right elbow. Leonard jumped and threw a pass directly to Jackson, who caught it and turned to face the basket in mid-air. He fired up a shot just before the clocks expired and sank it, giving the Clippers a 19-point advantage heading into the final frame.
Immediately after, Jackson ran down the floor to find Leonard, and the two were seen smiling and celebrating before high-fiving each other on the way to the bench.
Even at their best, this type of emotion wasn't seen often from the Clippers last season — and it's been all over the place this year. Whether it was the shot I just described, the team rallying around Jackson after he called a timeout the team didn't have, or the many other examples we've seen of this team truly playing with joy, it seems obvious that this is a team full of guys who are confident in and comfortable with each other.
There's no question that the Clippers are talented enough to win a championship, but this level of camaraderie could be what finally helps put them over the top.
Serge Ibaka's Energized Outing
Outside of Leonard and George, Serge Ibaka had arguably the best performance of the night for the Clippers.
After looking flat in LA's narrow victory over the Miami Heat on Friday, Ibaka was one of the most active players on the roster against Orlando. The seven-footer played effective basketball on both ends of the floor, building a line of 13 points, nine rebounds and three blocks in just 23 minutes of action.
Not only did he thoroughly outplay Vucevic, but he helped the Clippers limit the Magic to just 39% shooting inside the arc on Friday night. And while Orlando isn't a particularly great offensive team, Ibaka's impact was obvious.
Look for Ibaka and the Clippers to have another strong outing when they take on the New York Knicks this Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.