Though Wednesday night’s Clippers-Celtics game was already L.A.’s 15th contest of the season, the vibe at Staples Center felt like the start of something new. As one member of the Clippers front office said pregame, this was the team’s first real game of the season. That was because earlier in the day, the Clippers announced that Kawhi Leonard would play alongside Paul George for the first time after George missed the first few weeks of the season recovering from shoulder surgery, and Leonard sat out the previous three games with a left knee contusion. “There was no load management tonight,” George would later joke.
Doc Rivers tried to downplay expectations pregame, even saying that he didn’t plan to take much away from watching Leonard and George share the floor for the first time. Still, everyone at Staples Center—from the fans, to the players, to the coaches—knew they were there to watch the story of the offseason finally come together.
And yet, despite the fact the game against the East-leading, 11-2 Celtics began with a Leonard 3, included 25 points from George, and ended with a Leonard block against Kemba Walker in overtime, the beat that largely carried the Clippers was an old-school remix: Lou Williams in the clutch, and Patrick Beverley all over the place. Those two came through in multiple key moments, including Beverley’s dagger 3 that sealed the 107-104 overtime win on a play where the night’s two protagonists acted as decoys:
How much do we love @patbev21?— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 21, 2019
✋ THIIIIIIIIS MUCH
/ \ pic.twitter.com/O2SE2ifRLf
The game was a hard-fought battle that provided some unexpected takeaways. Namely, that the Clippers have the ability to multitask. They are far from the finished product that could make them title winners, but that doesn’t mean the improvement process has to come with a side of losses. As Wednesday showed, they’re deep enough to win even when their stars are not at their world-killing bests.
“I don’t care about who gets shots, Kawhi doesn’t care about who get shots,” George said after the game. “We need everybody. This is not a two-head monster.”
Even though the duo’s debut was months in the making—or years, considering George and Leonard have wanted to play together for some time—the result was at times sloppy. George finished with 25 points on 18 shots and added eight assists, but never looked fully in rhythm. Leonard shot 7-for-20 from the field but didn’t get to the line a single time. With the game tied on the final possession of regulation, Leonard had the ball in his hands, but missed a jumper that would have won the game. And while Leonard bothered the Celtics defensively (three steals, two blocks), his biggest flash of the night was a poster dunk:
OH ME, OH MY, KAWHI. @kawhileonard | #ClipperNation pic.twitter.com/2hulJvsRsN— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 21, 2019
Despite the expectations created by the talent on this team, the players and coaches seem willing to embrace patience—especially since they’re coming together much later in the season than most teams. Rivers called the win ugly, but beautiful. Neither Kawhi nor George seemed to be surprised by the offensive dissonance in their first game together. In previous interviews this season, both said early mistakes were going to happen. And they did. The Clippers turned the ball over 23 times on Wednesday night—Leonard and George contributed five turnovers apiece.
Still, it was impossible to define their performances as lackluster. Even on an off night, they both manufactured timely plays that helped swing the game their way. As the Lakers have already shown with Anthony Davis and LeBron James, opposing teams will have to beware of the nights when both superstars have it going.
When George returned to the floor with his “new shoulders” three games ago, Rivers raved that it looked like he had been playing in the team’s offense for years. But he also said there would be a learning curve on defense. Adding Kawhi to the mix seems to have balanced out the scales: On Wednesday, the Clippers held a top-10 offense in the league to a 98.5 offensive rating, more than 10 points below their season average.
Now the Clippers will be tasked with figuring out the rhythm on offense. Luckily, they have a number of reliable lifelines to keep them afloat while they do that. One of their strategies will be taking advantage of the attention Leonard and George inherently attract. The Celtics left Beverley open all night as they tried to stifle the Clippers stars, and he hit four of his seven tries from deep.
“I remember coming off one pick-and-roll, I was so open I didn’t know what to do,” Beverley said.
Leonard’s and George’s passing may be just as important this season as their scoring, keeping the offense humming by hitting players like Beverley and Williams when they pop open. Leonard has already shown he’s gone up a level as a playmaker, and both he and George found ways to distribute the ball on Wednesday, even through the Celtics’ traps. Sophomore guard Jerome Robinson said he and Leonard noticed that the Celtics were allowing for an advance pass to the corner, and the team adjusted (the Clippers hit six corner 3s in the second half and overtime).
George also transitioned seamlessly into the facilitator role once the Celtics went up by 10 in the fourth quarter. He found Williams for a 3-pointer, dished to Montrezl Harrell for both a layup and a dunk, and then put two eight-balls in Beverley’s shooting pocket for two 3s. George’s skills as a distributor date back to his high school days, when he was the best player on the floor but still insisted on sharing the ball. It continued in OKC, where Patrick Patterson, now a Clippers teammate, saw George fit in and still manage to shine next to Russell Westbrook. “His ability to adapt to change but still remain himself, an All-Star, isn’t talked about enough,” Patterson said.
Before the season began, there was a lot of discussion about whether the Clippers would be able to maintain the edge that fueled them last season with their new star-studded reality. They were no longer going to be able to play the underdog role with “title favorites” listed on their business cards. But Beverley’s vibrant presence on both ends, as well as Williams’s and Harrell’s “death, taxes, and pick-and-rolls” combination, has remained unchanged. Leonard and George have been able to leave their expected imprint without diluting the team’s essence.
Players are giving Rivers credit for creating that kind of balance. George says the veteran coach doesn’t want to change how each player plays, but rather hopes to tie them all together under one common goal. “The fact of the matter is, we’re winning while we’re learning,” George said. It’s a luxury only a few teams in the NBA can afford.