It was by no means a pretty win, but the LA Clippers pulled out a 105-100 victory over the feisty Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night, reclaiming (for the moment) the no. 3 seed in the Western Conference.
In terms of efficiency, a quick glance at the box score would indicate that the Clippers had a solid offensive game, shooting 52% from the field and 44.1% from three. But it’s hard to be truly efficient and outscore the other team when you’re throwing the ball all over the gym. The Clippers turned the ball over 18 times, one shy of their season-high, and this allowed the Raptors several extra possessions to try to outscore LA. Toronto attempted 12 more shots than the Clippers, which made up for their lower efficiency (46% from the field, 34.3% from three).
The Raptors led by six at halftime, thanks in large part to their experimental defense. As they often do, Toronto implemented a box-in-one or triangle-in-two zone defensive scheme, which essentially leaves opposing perimeter shooters open in favor of pestering the opponent’s primary offensive threat. Combine this with an aggressive blitzing of the pick-and-roll, and Kawhi Leonard and Paul George found themselves giving the ball up or never getting to touch it in the first place (Leonard was allowed just six field goal attempts, finishing the game with 13 points in 33 minutes).
This strategy can be extremely productive against teams that lack perimeter shooting and rely heavily on a single offensive creator (recall the Raptors’ defense on Stephen Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals). The zone allows the Raptors to jump passing lanes and send help in the lane, and this leads to a league-leading 16.2 turnovers forced per game.
The problem is, the Clippers do not lack perimeter shooting—they lead the league in three-point percentage. This meant that when George and Leonard were able to successfully pass out to teammates without error, the supporting cast rewarded them by raining jumpshots. LA had 28 assists on the night, many of which led to their 15 made threes. Marcus Morris Sr. stepped up from his tertiary role and dropped 22 points, hitting four of his five three-point attempts.
The Clippers’ starters did a solid job of overcoming Toronto’s defense, despite the turnovers. Still, down the stretch, they found themselves trailing. With 6:10 remaining in the game, Fred VanVleet (who was spectacular against LA, dropping 27 points and 13 assists) hit a three to extend the Raptors’ lead to six. From that point on, the Clippers went on an inspired 17-6 run, and 15 of those 17 points were either scored or assisted by two Clippers: Paul George and Reggie “Big Government” Jackson. The Raptors struggled mightily in clutch minutes as they have all season (they were being outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions in the last five minutes of games within five points or fewer heading into last night’s game—this figure has since been skewed even more), and George and Jackson took full advantage of Toronto’s collapse. Among the many heroics were George’s drawn charge on Pascal Siakam with 1:30 to go, and Jackson’s clutch made three that was drilled just as the shot clock was expiring with 1:06 remaining. It was an impressive display of resilience from LA, who seem to have righted their own clutch struggles from earlier in the season.
Pat Bev returns
After missing 12 straight games with a fractured hand, Patrick Beverley returned to the Clippers’ lineup, and didn’t seem to miss much of a beat. Beverley finished with the game with eight points on 3-5 shooting (2-3 from three) and dished out three assists in 15 minutes of action. He was his usual energizer-bunny-self, diving on the floor for loose balls and being an overall nuisance.
Lue elected to bring Beverley off the bench for his return game, keeping Jackson as the starting point guard, but it is still unclear if this will be the rotation moving forward.
Coming off the bench, Beverley played alongside fellow point guard Rajon Rondo. Beverley is used to playing next to ball-dominant players (starting alongside George and Leonard for the majority of the season), and his skillset pairs well with Rondo, as he can hit spot-up jumpers and guard the opposing team’s best perimeter threat. It’ll be interesting to see how the rotation shakes out with six games remaining in the regular season, particularly if Jackson continues to bail the Clippers out in close games.
Rondo and the bench struggle
Beverley was the lone bright spot in an otherwise miserable performance from the Clippers’ bench. While the starters averaged a +13.4 in terms of plus/minus against Toronto, the bench averaged a -8.4, and gave up nine of the Clippers’ 18 turnovers despite playing far fewer minutes than the starters.
Chief among the miserable performances was Rondo’s, as he turned the ball over six times by himself and scored zero points in 20 minutes of action. Tuesday was really the first night that Clipper fans got a glimpse of the flip-side of the Rondo coin; when his jump shot isn’t falling (his career averages say that, sooner or later, they won’t) and he’s getting a little too daring with his passes, nights like this can happen.
With Beverley returning and Jackson continuing his stellar play, Lue has alternatives when Rondo is doing more harm than good, but ultimately, the Clippers’ front office brought him in to be a key piece in their playoff rotation.
A playoff race update
By beating the Raptors, the Clippers regained hold of the no. 3 seed in the West for the time being. However, the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat on Tuesday, which knocked the Los Angeles Lakers down to the no. 6 seed, lining the two LA teams up for a tentative first-round matchup in a few weeks. The crosstown rivals will play each other on Thursday, giving the Clippers a chance to knock the Lakers back a half-game in the standings. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that LeBron James will not play against the Clippers, or in the Lakers’ following game against the Trail Blazers (who are currently a game back of them, in the no. 7 spot), as he recovers from a re-aggravation of an ankle sprain that has had him sidelined for a large part of the season.
Thursday’s game will be pivotal in determining whether the Clippers will have to face the reigning champions in the first round, but George says he and his teammates aren’t too concerned.
Thursday’s game will tip off at 7 p.m. on TNT.