Kawhi Leonard scores 34 as Clippers edge Portland to extend winning streak

Los Angeles, CA - December 11: LA Clippers guard James Harden, #1 maneuvers the ball under pressure.

Ninety minutes before tipoff, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said staying focused and being ready to play the full 48 minutes were the keys to beating a talented but inexperienced and undermanned Portland team.

The Clippers achieved both aims Monday night at Arena, beginning a four-game homestand with a gritty 132-127 triumph for their ninth win in 12 games and 14th victory in their last 15 meetings with Portland dating back to the 2019-20 season — the highest winning percentage by one Western Conference team over another during that span. It was also the Clippers' fourth consecutive win.

Read more: Kawhi Leonard's 41 points lead Clippers past Jazz in Utah

A layup by Anfernee Simons put Portland up 123-122 with two minutes to go, but Terance Mann was fouled driving to the basket and made both free throws to put the Clippers ahead. Paul George then blocked a shot along the baseline and made a layup at the other end to extend the lead to 126-123 with 31 seconds left. George made two free throws to ice it with 7.9 seconds left.

George finished with 20 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, Kawhi Leonard had 34 points and five assists, James Harden had 20 points, seven assists and seven rebounds and Ivica Zubac added 18 points.

Picking up where he left off in Utah on Friday when he netted a season-high 41 points, Leonard sank a 14-foot jumper to open the scoring and the Clippers raced to a 14-7 lead in the first four minutes, capped by a Zubac dunk off an assist from Mann.

“Offensively the team is in a good rhythm and that’s all I care about,” said Leonard, who was nine for nine from the free-throw line. “Tonight the ball found me and I made shots. I’ve played a lot of minutes over the last few games but sometimes you have to. When your best players play longer, you’ll most likely get the win.”

Ivica Zubac fouls Portland's Shaedon Sharpe.

Portland coach Chauncey Billups called a timeout in an attempt to halt the Clippers’ momentum and quiet the home crowd, but Mann drained a three-pointer, Leonard made a layup and Zubac followed with a five-footer to extend the Clippers' lead. Shaedon Sharpe snapped the 13-point run with an 18-foot pull-up jumper.

“It’s about knowing what we’re doing and having clarity,” Leonard said. “Using our experience, not being complacent. There’s still a lot we’re lacking. On defense we didn’t play that well. They’re a team with great defenders who can turn you over a lot so we were focused on screening hard.”

Portland (6-16) pulled to within four points on a three-pointer from Jabari Walker with 7:35 left in the second quarter, but moments after Moses Brown missed a dunk, Norman Powell swished a three-pointer from the corner. Portland crept to within four twice over the next two minutes, but Harden answered both times to give the Clippers (12-10) a cushion.

Russell Westbrook jumps and smiles.

“We take what the defense gives us, figure it out and attack,” Harden said. “If you share the ball, you get good results, but it wasn’t as easy as we’d like it to be. We don’t have the luxury of overlooking opponents.”

Despite the absence of top scorer Jerami Grant (averaging 22.1 points per game), who remains in concussion protocol and did not make the trip to California, the Trail Blazers kept battling and took their first lead on a layup by Brown with 28 seconds left in the first half. But George hit a driving floater with seven seconds left to give the Clippers a one-point lead at halftime. The Clippers had only two turnovers while shooting 43.8% from beyond the arc in the first half.

“James [Harden] is getting more comfortable and he, PG and Kawhi know how to close out games,” Lue said. “When we call their number those guys get to their spots and they’ve been great at capitalizing down the stretch.”

Portland retook the lead early in the third quarter, jumping ahead by five points. The Clippers regained control with a 12-5 spurt capped by a 27-foot step-back jumper by Leonard that gave them a 105-99 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

The Clippers have won 70 of their last 71 games when scoring at least 100 points in the first three quarters.

Simons scored 38 for Portland, which has lost four straight and 13 of its last 16.

“We’ve been in every game except for the first game here [a 123-111 loss to the Clippers on opening night] and I’m having so much fun coaching this group,” Billups said. “We’re building something, and our record is not indicative of where we are. We’ve lost so many close ones because we simply lack experience, but I want us to be a team no one wants to play against.”

The Clippers evened their record to 9-9 since acquiring Harden from Philadelphia in a seven-player trade on Nov. 1. They are undefeated in December and hope to continue to gain ground in the Western Conference with seven of their next 10 games at home, starting Tuesday against Sacramento.

"I’m very comfortable ... I’m not trying to prove anything to anyone,” Harden said. “I can still dunk, but on this team we have other guys who can do it better.”

Mason Plumlee missed the game with a left MCL sprain, but Lue said he is “progressing and feeling a bit better.”

Sign up for the L.A. Times SoCal high school sports newsletter to get scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.