The LA Clippers took a tough loss to the Sacramento Kings on Super Bowl Sunday, losing 113-110 in the team’s second straight game without Paul George.
George, who’s been sidelined with a sore right foot, was sorely missed, as the Clippers desperately needed a heavy dose of perimeter defense and three-point shot making—two things in which George specializes.
Kings’ guard De’Aaron Fox was uncontainable, even by the long arms of Kawhi Leonard, who guarded him for long stretches of the game. Fox put up 36 points on 15-25 shooting, and dished out seven assists for good measure. He was getting to the rim at will, freezing his defenders by speeding to the hoop and stopping on a dime before throwing out nifty finishes. The Clippers’ rim protection was sparse, and Fox took full advantage.
“I just thought his speed and quickness really hurt us,” Clippers Head Coach Tyronn Lue said postgame. “He was able to attack us all night, no matter the matchup, and he was able to get into the paint and cause havoc.”
Starters stagnate without PG
While Fox was making shots, LA’s starters were not. Sunday marked just the third time all season that the Clippers hit fewer than 10 three-pointers in a game, going a measly 8-28 (28.6%). Shots looked flat, as though the Clippers didn’t have their legs under them. It seems that their energy is lower on these early-start games (Sunday’s game tipped at noon PST).
“Some of the shots went in and out,” Kawhi Leonard said after the game. “Our pace was pretty low, for the majority of the game. Just give credit to [Sacramento]. They did a good job, they came in ready.”
Paul George’s absence meant that the entire offense ran through Leonard. He’s more than capable of carrying the load on a given night, but the Kings made him work for it. Leonard shot 9-21 from the field, and there seemed to be no flow when he wasn’t involved in the play. Luke Kennard looked aggressive early on, but still wasn’t creating enough consistently to warrant more minutes (Lue only kept him out there for 19). Kennard has shown flashes of creation off the dribble in addition to his potent spot-up game, but they've remained just flashes. As long as George is out, he and Reggie Jackson are going to have to be credible creative threats on offense, or defenses will simply direct all of their attention to Leonard.
Bench mob steps up
While the starters looked lackadaisical, the bench brought a necessary spark of energy to the game. Despite the loss, the entire bench was a positive in terms of plus-minus, as the Clippers’ depth outweighed the Kings’. Lou Williams led the charge, dropping 23 points to go along with five rebounds and five assists. Though Williams wasn’t the most efficient from the field (6-16), he made up for it by getting to the free throw line 10 times, hitting all 10 of his attempts. Williams looked energetic, willing to take contact at the rim and commit to his foul-drawing art form.
Williams seems to be rounding into form after a slow and injury-hindered start to the season, which is crucial for the Clippers, as trading for Derrick Rose is no longer an option. Unless another bench scorer becomes available, Williams will likely remain LA’s sixth man for the remainder of the season, so it’s a good sign to see him looking spry.
Zu closes the game
Ivica Zubac notched his fifth double-double of the season, contributing 12 points and 14 rebounds, and Lue rewarded him by playing him fifteen straight minutes to close out the game. Zubac’s five double-doubles have all come in his last 11 games. It seems he’s starting to take to his new role as a second unit center. He’s beginning to realize that just because he is no longer starting, it doesn’t mean he can’t have an impact and potentially finish the game given the right matchup.
“It means that my hard work is paying off,” Zubac said postgame when asked what it means that his coach trusts him to be in the closing lineup of close games.
Sunday’s loss marks the first time the Clippers have lost two games in a row all season. LA will travel to Minnesota to face the Timberwolves, with the goal of avoiding a dreaded three-game slide. It is unclear if Paul George or Patrick Beverley will return to the lineup.