The pregame public-address announcement of teams’ inactive players is usually an afterthought inside NBA arenas, with fans still streaming in generally less concerned about the players not in uniform than locating their seats.
But Saturday night boos were faint but audible inside Golden 1 Center at the mention of Clippers star reserves Kawhi Leonard and John Wall sitting out the season’s second game for rest. The team has promised a conservative handling of each’s early-season minutes, and Saturday was the second example of that in as many games, after Leonard played 21 minutes off the bench — his first time as a reserve in nine years — in Thursday’s season-opening win.
Leonard and Wall made the trip, but watched from the sideline, and playing short-handed by the team’s own design will not be an isolated occurrence this season. And on those nights, the question determining success and failure will be who and what does show up for the Clippers.
Amid a 111-109 win against the Kings that moved the Clippers to 2-0, there were 13 turnovers, many meeting coach Tyronn Lue’s criteria for careless — lofted passes intercepted at midcourt that turned into easy Kings baskets, a first-quarter pass to no one in particular.
One game after making two of his eight shots against the Lakers, Norman Powell, who has put pressure on himself to play at an All-Star level while starting in Leonard’s absence, made one of his 10 shots.
There were three bizarre delay-of-game calls, and stretches when the offense ran dry without a true backup point guard with Wall out.
But from late in the second quarter to the game’s end, starting from the moment he was irked after being called for an offensive foul and drew a technical for arguing the call, there was an onslaught of Paul George, who produced his 20th career 40-point game. After scoring four points in his first 11 minutes he got 36 in his last 28 to finish with 40, six rebounds and six assists with two steals.
George had practice last season at shouldering the offense in Leonard’s absence, authoring 40-point games twice before injuring his elbow weeks into last season, and Saturday showed his comfort stepping back into that role.
Lue spoke with George before the first game about being aggressive even with Leonard back in the fold this season, even after George had described himself as the second option to Leonard.
“I don’t think he has to change roles, I think he has to stay aggressive,” Lue said. “I had that talk with PG … you’ve got to be aggressive and do what you do.”
After reentering with seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter, George needed only 29 seconds to isolate on the right side, spin and shoot a falling jumper that gave the Clippers a 12-point lead. Two possessions later, George scored a layup through the flailing arms of two defenders to keep the lead at a dozen.
The Clippers made nine of their 22 three-pointers and 20 of their 22 free throws — both marked improvements after shaky shooting in Thursday’s win over the Lakers. And those numbers weren’t a credit to George alone, not with Luke Kennard showing an increased comfort driving the paint — he finished with 11 points — and Robert Covington starring in his 22 minutes, with eight points and seven rebounds. His dunk in traffic, followed by a steal and score, was a boost when a second unit with inconsistent offensive success needed a run.
There was also Ivica Zubac, the center who has proved during his three-plus seasons to be a constant in an ever-shifting lineup, affecting Kings shots in the paint. Lue called Zubac “our enforcer,” and when he added that “he’s going to be huge for us,” it applied in several ways with Zubac scoring 10 points to go with eight rebounds, though he didn’t play late as the Clippers turned to a smaller lineup. As the lone 7-footer in the rotation, Zubac’s availability and production this season will be more important than ever. Zubac anchored some lineups whose length stopped Kings drives before they started.
“Zubac, he’s frickin big, man,” Kings coach Mike Brown said. “And good. He’s good. Their team, when you look at their team, you look at Boston, you look at all that length and athleticism, you think that is the prototypical NBA team that you want to build.”
Up next for Clippers: Sunday vs. Phoenix Suns
When: 7 p.m. PDT
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: Phoenix (1-1) has gone to the wire in both games to start its season, after the season-opening comeback win sealed by Damion Lee’s game-winning shot then a loss Friday in Portland in which Anfernee Simons made a last-second hook shot over Suns defender Mikal Bridges. Suns point guard Chris Paul has started the season six-for-17 shooting, but has 21 assists against only four turnovers.