The first sign that things were different for the Clippers wasn’t seen so much as it was heard, 70 minutes before Wednesday’s tipoff. It was the sound of sneakers on cement flooring reaching full speed down a hallway leading from the court to the team’s Crypto.com Arena locker rooms.
The feet belonged to Norman Powell, the backup guard playing for the first time since injuring his groin on Nov. 29, who slowed only to make a hard left turn through the entrance of the locker room’s door, chopping his steps as if closing out on a shooter left wide open.
“I see how he feels tonight,” said a team official as the blur blew past.
For seven injury-strewn weeks, as their lineups resembled a revolving door of the healthy and hurt, the Clippers measured progress in how many steps forward they could take before another injury eventually set them back. They had played just twice at full strength — once in the season opener, and the other instance in game No. 3.
The third and long-awaited game featuring a fully healthy roster arrived Wednesday, after Powell and starters Paul George (knee), point guard Reggie Jackson (Achilles’ tendon) and center Ivica Zubac (knee) returned from ailments of various lengths.
The 126-105 rout that followed was at times uneven and overpowering. The title pursuit this franchise hopes can resume again will not resemble Powell’s run, an unbroken burst toward June. But Wednesday found the Clippers finally taking a strong first step, moving in the right direction.
“It was a sigh of relief at shootaround,” George said. “… We’ve had some adversity. We’re in good position.”
Leading by 18 after one quarter and as many as 36 before halftime, the Clippers (19-14) seemed to score on nearly every possession that didn’t end in one of their season-high 27 turnovers, from the fifth and sixth dunks of Kawhi Leonard’s season, to Nicolas Batum’s seven three-pointers on 10 shots.
“It felt like opening night a little bit,” Batum said. “I think people have been waiting for this for a long time now. People talk about, yeah, we have a good team, they have a great roster. … They want to see us, what we are all about. I thought we showed them a little bit tonight.”
The Clippers’ aspirations, of course, have nothing to do with razing a team such as Charlotte, which fell to 8-24, and everything to do with raising a first championship banner by outlasting the league’s best. And at full health for the time being, they face a rare but critical opportunity to turn their continuity into the form of a conference-title contender as they face stiffer competition in the form of an upcoming five-game trip.
“Now we got to continue to build something,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “First game under our belt, but we got a long way to go.”
George scored 22 points with eight rebounds and eight assists, Batum added 21 and Leonard scored 16 with seven rebounds and four assists.
What Lue foreshadowed before tipoff as the start of a new look also featured old issues. With 12 more turnovers and six fewer offensive rebounds, the Clippers took 12 fewer shots than the Hornets. Overrun for most of the first half, the Hornets scored off assists from former Chino Hills High star LaMelo Ball on crisp cuts to win the third. Behind Ball’s 25 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds, the lead was down to just 14 with nearly eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
But they saved their last run for the end, outscoring Charlotte by 10 over a 4:22 stretch of the fourth quarter to push the lead up to 24. “We’re going to have to reduce turnovers, but we saw some flashes especially in the first half,” Batum said. “We have so many weapons, so many guys who can do so many things on the court. Now we just have to find a groove.”
One of those flashes Lue was most encouraged by was holding Charlotte to 19 points in the first quarter.
When Leonard set screens, it created ripples of problems for Charlotte’s defense. As George made a contested shot while being fouled, he extended a 15-2 first-quarter run. Then, as he crossed the three-point line, George threw an underhanded lob to Leonard for an alley-oop dunk to push their lead to 25-10.
When Leonard and George checked out with four minutes to play in the first quarter, Powell checked in for his first minutes of the month and promptly turned the corner after taking a handoff and burst into the land to try a dunk. It didn’t land, to Powell’s screaming chagrin, but he was fouled, and when he dribbled to the rim going to his right hand unimpeded on his next two trips, as well, it was a notable stretch for a guard whose ability to draw fouls is unmatched on the roster, and seemed to answer any questions about his explosiveness following his groin injury that ended Powell’s strong three-week run of scoring in November.
Powell finished with 14 points off the bench and made six of seven free throws.
The Clippers spent Wednesday, and will use their upcoming five-game trip, to gauge their ideal bench unit. Lue employed an all-reserve unit during the first half that featured essentially four guards in Wall, Powell, Luke Kennard, Terance Mann alongside Batum.
Batum called that lineup’s benefit simply “spacing.”
In the fourth quarter, nursing a 23-point lead, Lue turned to Wall, Kennard, Mann and Powell again, but this time paired with Zubac for rebounding help.