There were moments in Saturday’s opening half when the Clippers’ offense looked nothing like it had all season.
Only minutes later did an all-too-familiar sight arrive: a key contributor leaving the court hurt.
Soreness in his right knee sidelined All-Star wing Paul George during the second half of his team’s eventual runaway 119-97 victory against San Antonio at Crypto.com Arena to improve to 10-7. The departure cut short what had been a superlative start, his 21 points in 15 minutes tied for his second-highest scoring output in a half this season, trailing only George’s 24-point first half against Utah earlier this month.
George watched the second half from the sideline with his right leg wrapped in a black sleeve, joining shooting guard Luke Kennard, who has missed the past two games with a strained right calf, on the team’s injury report. If George was concerned about his knee, it was not enough to keep him from lobbing T-shirts into the crowd during a break in the fourth quarter.
“I’m OK,” George told Steve Ballmer on his way to the locker room after the win, smiling and nodding after hugging the team’s owner. Coach Tyronn Lue also described George as fine.
Still, his unplanned absence cast a shadow over what otherwise qualified, in Lue’s estimation, as the team’s best game — a performance in which it cast aside its pattern of slow starts for an 18-point first-quarter lead, tying for its season’s most lopsided quarter. George was responsible for 18 points in a quarter when the Clippers, whose offense has ranked among the league’s bottom third virtually all season, erupted for 40.
Lue asked his players to make quick decisions on offense before tipoff, and when they did that, they made quick work of the Spurs.
“This is the blueprint,” Lue said.
One of the NBA’s most infrequent passing teams suddenly became an equal-opportunity attack while producing arguably its most impressive possession of the season. Backup point guard John Wall brought the ball around his back while driving into the paint in transition in the first quarter before passing to Nicolas Batum, who whipped the ball to his left around the three-point arc to Reggie Jackson on the wing, where he moved the ball yet again to Norman Powell in the corner for an open three-pointer.
Wall dished nine assists in only his first six minutes. He finished with 15 assists to become the first Clipper to record at least 15 assists since Chris Paul in 2017 and joining only Gary Grant, in 1991, and Pooh Richardson, in 1997, to record at least that many while coming off the bench.
Wall can remain too eager at times to lull his defender with a dribble while teammates watch, his belief in his jumper leading to a two-of-eight night for five points — but Wall was also sensational setting up others, his assists leading to 40 points. His first-quarter alley-oop lob just beyond the reach of a defender to fellow guard Reggie Jackson featured a degree of difficulty so high it would impress even a figure-skating judge. Jackson caught the pass and scored with his own magician’s touch off the backboard.
“When John Wall is playing like that we’re a tough team to beat,” Lue said.
The encouraging signs did not stop there, enough that the recurrence of yet another up-and-down second quarter — the Clippers own the NBA’s worst second-quarter net rating, the difference between points scored and given up per 100 possessions — was quickly forgotten as the rout continued. The Clippers’ 21 three-pointers was a season high.
Lue emptied his bench with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers received good news merely by the sight of Kawhi Leonard, who reported to Lue that his right knee felt “good” following his return to the court Thursday after 12 games sidelined, playing for a second consecutive game. Then he finished with 22 minutes and scored 11 points, making five of his eight shots.
And Powell, a 28% three-point shooter this season, made five of seven shots beyond the arc to finish with a team-high 26 points off the bench, his seventh game scoring in double figures in his last nine games — each subsequent game putting his struggle-filled start to the season further into what he and the team hopes is the rear view.