The NBA championship window is shrinking for the LA Clippers

AS THE LA CLIPPERS‘ constitution aircraft took off from the Los Angeles International Airport runway on a cloudy afternoon on Feb. 25, a number of gamers have been napping when the Denver-bound flight took a sudden veer towards the left seconds into the air simply above the Pacific Ocean.

The Clippers’ aircraft started to shake and rattle earlier than a loud bang may very well be heard. Some staffers noticed a flash on the suitable aspect of the plane because the engine went eerily silent for a second earlier than roaring again to life and filling the cabin with thunderous revving.

The aircraft dropped in altitude a number of instances and shrieks may very well be heard from passengers in what some staffers known as one of many worst moments they’ve skilled on a flight.

“Us players, we’re trying to nap away,” guard Eric Gordon advised ESPN, calling it the second-worst flight he has skilled in his 15 NBA seasons. “Oh, everybody was up after that for sure.”

Shortly after the Clippers landed safely in Colorado, the group noticed a mark that took a few of the paint off the tail of the Delta Air Lines aircraft — the results of a midair lightning strike.

If the Clippers may survive this, coach Tyronn Lue figured his group may definitely navigate any turbulence they expertise on the court docket after the February additions of Russell Westbrook, Gordon, Mason Plumlee and Bones Hyland.

But even he was shocked that the Clippers misplaced their first 5 video games out of the All-Star break after profitable 10 of 14. The Clippers dropped video games in tumultuous and breathtaking style to playoff contenders Sacramento (twice), Denver, Minnesota and Golden State. Lue’s group scored loads of factors however discovered methods to lose — blowing a number of double-digit leads, permitting an astonishing 176 factors to the Kings in double additional time, failing to safe a late important rebound in Denver and watching a possible game-clinching cross slip by Westbrook’s fingers in Sacramento.

It’s no marvel that 4 days after their lightning-strike scare, the Clippers have been strolling on the tarmac at LAX to board their constitution flight to San Francisco when hail started coming down.

“Our luck was so bad, we even got struck by lightning,” Lue stated.

But as they head into Wednesday’s conflict with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors (10 p.m. ET, ESPN), the Clippers have discovered a spark, profitable three straight video games with an improved protection that they’re going to put to the check towards the defending champs.

Entering the season with what was anticipated to be the deepest roster within the NBA and championship expectations as a preseason favourite, the Clippers determined on the commerce deadline to chart a distinct course towards a primary title after their first 58 video games of the season did not go as deliberate.

The group jettisoned level guards Reggie Jackson and John Wall, together with sharpshooter Luke Kennard. Then with convincing from Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lue, Clippers administration signed Westbrook regardless of growing a rhythm with Terance Mann beginning.

With the Clippers’ title window shrinking, Year 4 of the Leonard-George period received off to a disappointing begin as a result of accidents, minutes restrictions and the failed Wall expertise. And it stays to be seen how the Clippers’ surprising danger of including Westbrook will in the end impression their chemistry and championship pursuit. But after teetering in play-in territory, Leonard and George are enjoying just like the dominant tandem LA proprietor Steve Ballmer envisioned.

“We just have what it takes,” George stated final week after the Clippers defeated Toronto. “It’s just putting it together on both ends. Even within the losses, we’ve proven that we can compete [with contenders], and it’s just small stuff that we got to clean up and take ownership of.

“We have all of the intangibles. We have the personnel. We have the teaching. Everything {that a} championship group or a group that may compete for one has, now we have in our locker room.”

IN WESTBROOK’S FOURTH game with his new team, Warriors forward Draymond Green gave the Clippers a preview of what opposing defenses could have in store.

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With less than seven minutes left in the first quarter on March 2, Green was standing deep in the paint while shuffling his feet around the dotted half-circle under the basket but not straying too close to the free throw line as if there was a forcefield.

Green was daring Westbrook to shoot, sagging and leaving him extensive open.

“Everybody always judges Russ’ jump shot,” Green stated after the Warriors’ 115-91 win. “But what that does to you mentally, it’s tough. I think it was more the mental than his shot. He’s been shooting the ball well … but mentally that can get tough. … It’s not necessarily getting in his head, but it will make you think, for sure. You are taught in basketball when you’re open, take the shot. But when you are open every play, you kind of start questioning yourself.”

This was precisely what Lawrence Frank, Clippers president of basketball operations, was leery of.

Frank admitted after the commerce deadline that the group regarded into making a deal for a extra true level guard for Lue. But Frank made it clear that the perfect level guard wouldn’t be performed off the ground defensively, will not be ball dominant with the basketball “in Kawhi and PG’s hands about 60% of the time” and has “got to be able to shoot.”

“Because you know in the playoffs,” Frank stated, “the stars, they’re not going to have all that type of space.”

The Clippers are hoping the previous MVP can create his personal shot on the rim, push tempo, facilitate alternatives for teammates along with his passing and convey a fiery depth and voice to a group that has two quiet superstars — all attributes they anticipated from Wall.

The 34-year-old Westbrook has to suit this outlined position Lue and the Clippers set for him. If Westbrook deviates and shows poor shot choice, takes 3s early within the shot clock or commits turnovers, Lue has stated he’ll modify accordingly.

“We had conversations,” Westbrook stated of what Lue desires from him. “And I know what my job is and make sure I’m getting guys shots and distributing the ball at a high level and defending.”

Golden State tried placing this to the check. While Westbrook missed all 5 of his 3-point makes an attempt with the Warriors standing a mean separation of 12.9 ft away, in line with ESPN Stats & Information analysis, Westbrook largely tried to stay to the sport plan. He regarded to cross or assault the rim as a substitute of settling for 3s.

And the Clippers constructed a 12-point lead early within the third quarter regardless of the Warriors’ defensive ploy earlier than Golden State went on a 38-8 run within the third quarter.

Westbrook is averaging 13.3 factors and seven.5 assists in 29.5 minutes throughout his eight video games with the Clippers. His 3-point taking pictures (26.1%) and turnovers (4.0 per sport) proceed to be subpar, however he has principally tried to play off Leonard and George, shifting the ball and attacking when alternatives current themselves whereas taking pictures open 3s in rhythm. He is taking pictures 50.6% from the sphere, up from 41.7% he shot with the Lakers earlier this season.

Westbrook has a 54.1% efficient discipline aim proportion with the Clippers in comparison with 47.0% throughout his season-and-a-half stint with the Lakers in line with ESPN Stats & Information.

In his Clippers debut, Westbrook had 17 factors and 14 assists — tied for essentially the most assists in a group debut in Clippers franchise historical past — but additionally had seven turnovers within the Clippers’ 176-175 double-overtime loss to the Kings.

When Leonard sat out in Sacramento on March 3, Westbrook went backwards and forwards with Kings All-Star De’Aaron Fox. Fox had 33 factors, 7 assists and seven rebounds; Westbrook had 27 factors on 12-for-16 taking pictures and 10 assists.

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“He came out, played his game,” George stated. “He looked great, look like prime Russ. He was special. Plays after plays; finishes after finishes; big, timely baskets; rebounding; big stops. He gave us that energy and that juice.”

However, an important turnover with the Clippers up one level led followers at Golden 1 Center to let loose an “ohhhhhh” with 15 seconds left. Gordon fired a excessive cross that slipped by Westbrook’s arms as he took his eyes off the ball. The Kings pulled out a 128-127 win.



Kings prevail as Paul George comes up brief

The Kings go forward on the line after which Paul George cannot join on the 3-pointer because the Clippers fall 128-127.

“He’s probably the most scrutinized player in our game,” Fox stated after the win. “But … when you are out there, you know he is going to play hard, he is going to create for his teammates, he is going to get to the basket.”

Fox definitely has gotten a style of the Clippers’ new offensive firepower. The Clippers have been within the backside 10 in offensive effectivity getting into the All-Star break. They rank No. 12 in offensive effectivity since including Westbrook and have a 117.1 offensive effectivity when Westbrook is on the ground, in comparison with 109.6 when he’s off, in line with ESPN Stats & Information.

Defensively is the place the Clippers took a step again. They ranked prime 10 in defensive effectivity earlier than the All-Star break however dipped to No. 25 after, though they performed significantly better protection in wins towards the Raptors and Knicks.

Westbrook has made the Clippers sooner, as they play with the eighth-fastest tempo, up from twenty fourth earlier than Westbrook joined the group.

“In a lot of ways, this is like a perfectly crafted roster for him,” Minnesota coach Chris Finch stated. “They put a lot of spread lineups out there. They run, cover the 3-point line in transition, really open up his early attacks, which he is elite at.”

Westbrook can be attempting to set screens, even when it sometimes results in offensive fouls prefer it did twice in his Clippers debut. According to Second Spectrum monitoring, Westbrook has been the screener for 4.2 on-ball screens per 100 possessions with the Clippers, up from 2.3 with the Lakers this season.

Lue will not hesitate to play Gordon or Mann over Westbrook within the fourth if he thinks the group is in a rhythm, as he did towards Toronto and New York. And to date, Westbrook has stayed engaged, leaping off the bench and being the primary to rejoice with Leonard throughout a timeout after the ahead posterized Toronto’s Jakob Poeltl.

“Russ showed even when PG was [in Oklahoma City], he can defer and make guys better,” Lue stated after the Clippers beat the Knicks 106-95 on March 11. “He just wants to win. You see him in the fourth quarter, he’s up, he’s cheering, he’s constantly talking to T-Mann, things he sees, he’s talking to me. We need that. He’s been great.”

His addition may need shaken up roles and minutes in Lue’s rotation, however Westbrook is decided to supply Leonard and George with no matter they want.

“My job is to make sure to keep instilling confidence in PG and Kawhi,” Westbrook stated. “And make sure they [dominate] every single night, and we got to make sure the rest of our guys do our part, whatever that may be, any given night.

“And we will be a tough group to cease.”

IT SURE DIDN’T look that way on March 5 when the Clippers surrendered 51 points in the third quarter to a Memphis Grizzlies team playing without Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke. Early in the fourth, Jaren Jackson Jr. hit George with an inadvertent elbow and the Clippers All-Star crumpled to the floor, lying face first and writhing in pain.

After the Clippers blew an 11-point lead early in the third quarter and trailed 121-107 with less than nine minutes left in the fourth, this seemed like a possible knockout blow to LA’s season.

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Two games earlier, when the Clippers blew their 12-point lead to the Warriors, George said the “urgency may very well be higher” and Lue wanted his team to “be mentally powerful, mentally sturdy.”

Instead, the Clippers were minutes away from their losing streak spiraling to six.

“It felt just like the stakes have been excessive,” Lue said postgame.

But George shook off the elbow to his face. And he and Leonard lifted the Clippers out of their malaise, scoring 25 of the Clippers’ final 28 points to stun the Grizzlies 135-129.



Paul George, Kawhi Leonard lead 4th-quarter comeback for Clippers

Paul George and Kawhi Leonard make clutch plays down the stretch, leading the Clippers to a fourth-quarter comeback victory over the Grizzlies.

George and Leonard weren’t just unstoppable down the stretch, they displayed their elite two-way game, shutting Memphis down defensively during a 24-2 run.

After delivering 42 points and 11 rebounds, George said he finally feels healthy after dealing with a troublesome right knee that had been flaring up. And it showed with George getting to the line 15 times against Memphis, the fourth time in a six-game span that he went to the free throw line 10-plus times.

Westbrook’s arrival also has taken some of the load off George, who was bringing the ball up the floor 27.6 possessions per game from Jan. 17 to Feb. 16, according to Second Spectrum. With Westbrook, George is averaging 19.0 possessions per game.

A fresher George will only help Leonard, who is looking like the player he was before his right ACL injury in June 2021. Since Jan. 8, Leonard is averaging 28.6 ppg on 53% shooting, including 50% on 3-pointers and 91% on free throws. Leonard is the only player averaging 50/50/90 shooting splits while taking at least 50 shots during that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Leonard has scored 33 or more points in five of his past nine games. And perhaps a true indication of just how good Leonard feels after being in and out of the lineup early in the season and playing under a minutes restriction is that the forward dunked five times against Toronto. Leonard has 12 career games with at least four dunks — three of which have come since mid-January.

“Our heads are nonetheless excessive even once we misplaced these video games,” Leonard said. “We’re nonetheless assured in ourselves. And then I’m on the ground and every time I’m enjoying, I really feel like we will win a basketball sport. And I believe all people else feels the identical means.”

With Norman Powell nursing a left shoulder injury, Lue said he is still figuring out his rotation and the combinations that work best. One thing he has settled on is his starting five, citing the experience that Leonard, George, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac have together as the one familiar thing this team has with so many new players. The team also has taken advantage of the most practice days it has had all season due to a light post-All-Star schedule.

“It’s a fast turnaround,” George said. “… I’ve by no means been on this state of affairs however you virtually received to reprogram and match the best way a complete completely totally different group performs. And I believe that takes some time, to place your imprint on a group that already is molded and enjoying a sure means.”

When asked what his marker is for when a team has to develop its chemistry, Lue spoke with the urgency that he and the Clippers feel.

“The marker is now,” Lue said.

George believes the Clippers’ tough losses to playoff contenders will have them battle tested for any storm that comes their way.

“I believe you see the massive image of what we will be and what we will probably be,” George said. “I nonetheless consider we will be a tricky group to beat in seven video games. And these powerful losses will be classes discovered.”

— ESPN Stats & Information’s Matt Williams contributed to this story.