With Kawhi Leonard out, a surprise star steps up, but can't save Clippers in Boston

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Andrew Greif
·5 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George (13) shoots against Boston Celtics center Daniel Theis (27) as Clippers center Ivica Zubac (40) looks on in the first quarter of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, March 2, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Paul George shoots against Boston Celtics center Daniel Theis as Clippers center Ivica Zubac looks on in the first quarter Tuesday in Boston. (Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

At the start of Tuesday’s “Star-Spangled Banner,” Reggie Jackson was a Clippers backup.

By its end, a staffer was running after the veteran guard as he walked off the court inside Boston’s TD Garden to tell him he was now a starter.

Not only had the Clippers left Milwaukee two days earlier nursing a defeat clinched by a disappearing late-game offense, but star forward Kawhi Leonard also was nursing a back injury, coach Tyronn Lue said. After trying to warm up before tipoff in Boston, Leonard was a late scratch because of back spasms, which led to a scene where Jackson, after playing just three minutes against the Bucks, learned his role was about to get considerably bigger while starting lineups still were being announced.

“He said, ‘OK, I am ready to go,’” Lue said.

If the abrupt substitution wasn’t how the coach had hoped to start, the ending of Boston’s eventual 117-112 win was too rushed for Lue’s liking too.

Trailing by five with 2 minutes 43 seconds remaining, the Clippers didn’t make another field goal until 10 seconds remained, when Paul George’s corner three-pointer trimmed his team’s deficit to just two. But free throws by the Celtics on the next possession, plus a missed three-pointer by George with eight seconds left, sealed a second straight defeat in which the Clippers’ scrap was doomed by too little offense, too late.

George made two of 10 fourth-quarter shots, including one of six three-pointers, and agreed with Lue’s assessment that by taking some of shots too quickly, he’d removed the possibility of the plays’ other designed options to develop.

One such instance came with 48 seconds left and the Clippers down four. After a stop, the Clippers moved the ball upcourt before clearing out for George, who shot over 6-foot Kemba Walker’s head and missed a three-pointer with 14 seconds on the shot clock.

“I’m mad at myself for the shot I took,” said George, who has made three of 19 shots in his last two fourth quarters. “Better time and possession right there. You take the two. We still, I think, had at least 20-something-plus seconds left on the clock if I go in and try to get two instead of the pull-up three. So it’s just possessions like that. That was a bad early shot for us.”

He added, later, that “I had the mismatch, and I got to force them to make a play. They got to make a play; somebody’s got to step up. That was on me. I did it all night to force their hand, taking them down lower. Down in the possessions, I settled.”

As much as George shouldered blame, there were few other obvious options to hand the ball over to in the final minutes with Leonard out and backup forward Marcus Morris — a 46% three-point shooter this season who’d scored 10 points in 15 minutes against Boston — lost too, after suffering a concussion late in the first half following a hit to his head while reaching for a rebound.

Lue said he didn’t know whether Leonard would be available to play Thursday at Washington, the Clippers’ final game before the All-Star break, during which Leonard and George are scheduled to play in Sunday’s exhibition in Atlanta.

“We feel like we got the ball in the right guys’ hands,” Jackson said. “They're gonna do their best job night in and night out to make the right decisions for us. … We trust them all the time, and a lot of times they find a way to pull it out for us, to make big tough shots.”

Jackson lived up to his pregame word, scoring a season-high 25 points and helping the Clippers shoot 58% through three quarters, on their way to 18 three-pointers on 47% accuracy.

Some possessions looked straight out of Lue’s dreams, with a drive leading to a kick-out pass, which led to another before finding an open shooter.

That free-flowing attack slowly bogged down in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers made eight of 22 shots to raise fresh concerns, in some corners, about their closing ability on the heels of a loss at Milwaukee in which they didn’t score in the final four minutes.

The Celtics (18-17) won their third straight, after a week of losses and consternation, by employing a similar switching defense that also frustrated the Clippers in two losses to Brooklyn. Jayson Tatum (14 points) and Jaylen Brown (18) didn’t take over offensively, leaving Walker to become the Celtics’ leading scorer with 25, but the impact of the long-armed pair of All-Stars and franchise cornerstones was felt defensively.

“They were comfortable switching and comfortable also playing one-on-one defense, so in those cases you have to still find ways to continue to attack them, whether it be getting ball screens from other places when they suddenly double,” Jackson said. “So we have to watch film and figure it out. A lot of teams unfortunately have been hurting us right now with the switching.”

Three takeaways on the Clippers

  1. Luke Kennard played his first meaningful minutes since Feb. 15 once the concussion suffered by Marcus Morris further depleted the Clippers’ reserves, who were already missing forward Patrick Patterson because of personal reasons. Kennard played only five minutes, as coach Tyronn Lue relied on virtually an eight-man rotation in the second half.

  2. Making free throws has been the easy part for the Clippers, whose 84% accuracy leads the league. The challenge has been getting the opportunity. Even for a team whose 19.6 free throws per game are third fewest in the NBA, Tuesday was a striking dip — eight makes on nine attempts.

  3. The Clippers made eight of 16 corner three-pointers to continue to hold the NBA’s top shooting percentage from corners this season: 50.3%.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.