They say it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish. Well, the Clippers basically disproved that theory last night against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Despite winning the last 44 minutes and 50 seconds of the game by a margin of 100-86, LA still lost to Philly by a final tally of 106-103, thanks to an absolutely dominating first three minutes and 10 seconds in which the Sixers outscored the Clippers 20-3. The lone made basket by LA was a three by Paul George (a precursor to yet another outstanding performance from him), but they were 0-6 otherwise to start, while Philly hit seven of their first eight attempts. LA looked sloppy, (they were on their third game in four nights, at the end of an East Coast road trip, and once again without their superstar Kawhi Leonard) but it was more so that Philly looked like the defensive juggernaut that they are (they rank second in the league in defensive rating at 106.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). Ben Simmons and Danny Green were using their length to run shooters off the line and close out, forcing the Clippers to pass up their usual looks.
It also didn’t help that the Clippers had nothing close to an answer for Joel Embiid, and this would be a theme throughout the game. He had eight points in that opening run, and finished the game with 36 points and 13 rebounds, getting to the free throw line a whopping 18 times. Ivica Zubac was given the initial task of containing Embiid, but he earned two fouls in the first five minutes trying to contain The Process. Head Coach Tyronn Lue quickly realized that if Embiid was going to dominate his opponent no matter how big he is (Zubac is easily the tallest and heaviest player on the roster), he might as well insert a center that can spread Embiid out to the three point line. Patrick Patterson was called upon (more on him later) and the Clippers were able to slowly claw their way back offensively after the slowest of starts.
Then, in the third quarter, the Clippers really made a dent in Philly’s lead, thanks in large part to a 15-point quarter from Paul George. By the fourth quarter, LA was only down four, and briefly took the lead with seven minutes to go in the game. The two teams would trade baskets all the way up until crunch time when, with under a minute to go, Paul George hit a tough layup to keep the Clippers within three. However, a miscommunication occurred somewhere within the Clippers’ defense, and Ben Simmons was able to find Furkan Korkmaz for an and-1 layup off of a full-court outlet pass immediately after George scored. With the lead now at six with 47 seconds left, the game felt over, but Lue drew up a beautiful after-timeout play to get Marcus Morris Sr. an easy lob dunk off of a Rajon Rondo inbounds pass. The Sixers then missed a three on their next possession, and Reggie Jackson hit a clutch three on the other end to cut the lead to just one with 23 seconds left. The Clippers had to foul Philly because the shot clock was off, but they elected to attempt a trap first. Lue said after the game that they wanted to force the ball to Ben Simmons (a 61.5% free throw shooter this season) before fouling, but Philly kept him away from the play, and LA ended up fouling Danny Green after shaving 10 seconds off the game clock. Green hit both free throws to increase the lead to 3, and Lue used his final timeout to draw up a play. Philly did an excellent job of denying Paul George, and the ball ended up in Morris’ hands. He took a contested three, which was off, and Philly walked away with a win.
PG fights through a bug, keeps streaking
For the fifth consecutive game, Paul George scored 30+, dropping 37 points on 14-29 shooting. George also contributed nine rebounds and six assists, and played impressive help defense on Embiid, blocking his shot twice. George was unafraid of Embiid’s rim protection, as he attempted 12 shots at the rim on the night, making eight of them.
Prior to the game, it was unclear if George would even play. Lue said pregame that he was “under the weather” the last couple days and missed shootaround, and that he’d be a game-time decision. But clearly, George overcame whatever was bugging him, because he continued what has been the best stretch of his Clipper tenure.
If George misses minimal games for this last stretch of the season, this 30-point streak has no-doubt cemented him as an All-NBA candidate. He’s still a menace defensively, and he’s in the midst of the most efficient season of his career. Factor in that he’s carrying his team offensively in Leonard’s absence, and his case becomes abundantly clear.
Patrick Patterson gives LA a much-needed boost
As previously mentioned, Patrick Patterson was given the task of guarding Joel Embiid for stretches after Lue realized Zubac was overmatched. While Patterson was even more undersized, he did offer a floor-spacing element that drew Embiid away from the basket and allowed LA to get into the paint. When Philly did sag off of Patterson and collapse into the paint, he made them pay, hitting five of his seven three-point attempts on his way to 18 points in just 14 minutes.
Patterson has mostly been an innings eater for LA this season, particularly while Serge Ibaka has dealt with lower back tightness for the last month or so, but he has these breakout games every now and then that make him an asset for the Clippers’ depth.
Rajon Rondo fits seamlessly
Rajon Rondo closed the game against Philly, contributing a ton of big plays like the aforementioned inbounds lob to Morris. He also showed off a beautiful bullet pass to a cutting George that only he and few other visionary passers in the league can make. Rondo finished the game with 10 points and eight assists, and he hit two of his three three-point attempts when Philly went under on screens set for him.
The Clippers are outscoring their opponents by an average of 11.1 points per game when Rondo is on the court. It’s still a small sample size of seven games, but they’ve faced some heavy hitters during that stretch (Portland, Phoenix, Philly). Rondo’s usual shooting woes and defensive laziness have not been an issue so far, and his playmaking has been extremely useful, particularly on the second unit. Time will tell if this competency will continue in the postseason.
The Clippers will look to shake off this loss as they head home to face the MInnesota Timberwolves at Staples Center, tipping off on Sunday night at 7 p.m.