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WASHINGTON — Two practices.
Between the NBA schedule and teams veering from in-season practices to preserve health, Paul George has seen the practice floor with his Los Angeles Clippers teammates only twice since his delayed debut after offseason shoulder surgery.
He doesn’t look worse for wear or even rusty through 12 games, easing his way into rhythm and into a season with the highest expectations of his 10-year career.
“It’s a positive because it’s great on our bodies,” George said following the Clippers’ 135-119 win over the Washington Wizards on Sunday night at Capital One Arena. “We do miss those times — you see the sloppy plays where practices are essentially games.”
George is confident because he knows the Clippers (17-7) have the potential to be an elite, championship-style defense. You don’t need practice for that.
“We have a long way to go on both sides of the ball,” George said. “But I think the defensive side will come a lot easier than the offensive side with the talent we have on the defensive end. That’s a natural pickup. I think the sky is great for what we can become.”
It could be blasphemous, but it may not be a surprise that the trio of George, Kawhi Leonard and Patrick Beverley could be the best the NBA has ever seen on the perimeter — at least in the modern era.
“Wow, really?” Beverley said to Yahoo Sports when the notion was presented. “We haven’t done anything yet.”
Scoring is up across the league and tough defense has been somewhat legislated out of the game, but the versatility, fundamentals and downright meanness of these three Clippers would stand out in any era.
Beverley is a nonstop irritant, a master at invading space and getting under an opponent’s skin. Despite being 6-foot-1, trying to post him up is a fool’s errand, and among point guards, only Russell Westbrook and Ben Simmons rebound at a higher rate.
Leonard and George take turns being rock solid or opportunistic thieves, snatching passes for breakaway dunks or taking advantage when ball-handlers are careless for a split-second too long.
Beverley is 16th in defensive box plus-minus, the highest-ranking guard on the list. Leonard is 19th. Teammate Mo Harkless is 17th. Slowly, they’re starting to get away with more physical play from the refs — a signal of respect.
They harassed Wizards star Bradley Beal into a miserable night in which he missed 11 of his first 13 shots and was rightly frustrated with the officials over calls they missed.
“I think PG said it. You get a few guys who know how to play defense, select guys that want to play defense, want to get stops,” Beverley told Yahoo Sports. “Like a coded language all defenders have, we’re all on a string. When we get locked in defensively, we’re hard to score on. We have to find a way to do that consecutively instead of spurts.”
The Clippers don’t look anything close to a finished product, which is why the defensive numbers place them among the good but not quite great.
That should change in short order.
Leonard still looks like he’s rounding himself into optimal shape. George isn’t even playing 30 minutes a night yet.
Only the go-hard Lakers are ahead of them in the West with a 20-3 record.
Talking to people around the Clippers and throughout the league, great duos come to mind but three defensive-minded perimeter players are hard to name.
The Bad Boy Pistons had Dennis Rodman and Joe Dumars.
The Atlanta Hawks had Mookie Blaylock and Stacey Augmon for a short while.
The easy and perhaps only answer to the question would have to be the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls. Not only were Jordan and Pippen all-world defenders, but their second three-peat added a third member: Ron Harper.
Harper, although slowed by knee injuries at this point, transformed into a complementary defensive player who aided Jordan and Pippen, terrorizing smaller guards as the rules allowed for far more hand-checking and physical play.
“We haven’t done anything yet to be compared to those guys,” said Beverley, a Chicago native. “That’s a question you gotta ask me at the end of the year.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he’d have to do his research but quickly pointed to the Bulls trio as the standard bearers.
“Whatever it is, it’s Chicago. Really. They’ve had the best I’ve ever seen,” Rivers told Yahoo Sports. “They had more length than we do. Harper was 6-7, too. He was still a great defender.”
The one thing Rivers pointed out was the change in talent from that era to now, saying, “You definitely need more guard help now.”
Including Leonard, Rivers’ newly acquired superstar swingman, 12 of the last 14 NBA Finals MVPs have been from that money position.
One longtime assistant coach and former player from the ’90s brought up a few guys who gave him fits: Gary Payton, Nate McMillan and Vincent Askew, a hellacious set from the mid-’90s Seattle SuperSonics.
In 1996, Payton won Defensive Player of the Year and the Sonics advanced to the Finals, falling in six games to Chicago Bulls. It was Jordan’s worst Finals series by a country mile, due in large part to Payton being switched onto Jordan after Seattle fell behind three games to none.
It would seem only fair to put this theory to test against this generation’s Jordan — at least by stature — in LeBron James.
If that mountain is conquered in a seven-game series, those who are aghast won’t feel so offended.
“Defense is easy. Defense is defense,” Beverley said. “When you have Kawhi and PG, not good, but great defensive players. You have people like me, Mo and [Ivaca] Zubac on the back line doing all the dirty work, collectively we’re on a string.”
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