Clippers guard John Wall sat in the corner of the locker room, glued to his phone. The Clippers had just lost in Philadelphia to begin a five-game road trip and players were stewing over the breakdowns.
But Wall, who watches as much basketball as anyone in the NBA, was glued to his phone looking at another game. To Marcus Morris Sr., Kawhi Leonard and a few others within earshot, he repeated the stat line that caught his eye: 43 points and seven assists, with 10 three-pointers. It belonged to Indiana point guard Tyrese Haliburton. Those sounded like All-Star numbers to Wall.
Eight days later, Haliburton had six points through three quarters against the Clippers before torching them for a game-changing 18 in the fourth quarter, including 12 consecutive points in one stretch to seal Indiana’s 131-130 victory.
The loss closed a five-game road trip in which the Clippers, who have produced one of the league’s top-ranked half-court defenses most of the season, allowed at least 113 points in each. Coach Tyronn Lue described the defense as inconsistent.
Until Haliburton’s late heroics, this game looked like Paul George’s to celebrate after scoring 45 points, with nine rebounds and four assists.
Two days earlier while leaving Boston, George said he expected to hear boos in Indiana, where he developed from the 10th overall draft pick in 2010 into a four-time All-Star before wanting out in 2017, and getting his wish. That trade netted Indiana center Domantas Sabonis, who was in turn traded last season for Haliburton, the foundational piece of a rebuild that has seen the Pacers this season exceed expectations in wins and good vibes — but neither that, nor the absence of nearly six years, dulled the edge of fan angst.
George made a step-back three-pointer on the first play and pushed his finger to his lips amid boos, and a brass band in the arena’s second level led a chant of “Paul George sucks.” When George cut through traffic into the paint for a one-handed dunk in the second quarter, the noise changed to a collective ooh. And there was nothing after he and Leonard took turns in the second quarter trying to find soft spots in Indiana’s defense in a possession that ended with George making a short jumper as the shot clock ticked down. He scored 12 points in the second quarter.
Then the third belonged to Leonard, who had 17 points and three assists leading to eight points. His last shot of the quarter was a three-pointer he backed into after seeing not the usual double-team Indiana had sent all night but a third defender, as well. He finished with 24 points, seven assists and five rebounds.
Terance Mann, who played only five minutes in Boston the previous game, was featured prominently in a series of small-ball lineups that Lue used for nearly an entire quarter as starting center Ivica Zubac sat on the bench. The Clippers trailed by one when it began, with three minutes to go in the third quarter, and led by one, 118-117, when Zubac returned with 3:47 to play in regulation.
George stole a Pacers pass with the Clippers leading 120-118 with 2:43 to play but threw the ball away. Haliburton made a three-pointer on the next possession, the game tilting toward Indiana at last.