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Clippers 5 Takeaways: Paul George's scoring and a shift in pace of play

Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
 2021-10-07

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The loudest it got Wednesday inside Staples Center came with nearly nine minutes left to play while a blowout was tilted against the home team.

The Sacramento Kings led the Clippers by 27, and it didn’t matter. Noise overtook a building that was, by any charitable reading, half-filled at most. One spectator in a courtside seat raised both hands into the air, fingers pointed toward the scoreboard hanging over mid-court, where a video of Chris Taylor’s walk-off home run to beat St. Louis at Dodger Stadium played to shrieks of joy. It was a rare moment of excitement in a 113-98 loss that saw the Clippers drubbed in the second half of their second preseason game.

Here are five takeaways from the loss:

1. Focus of the offense

The Clippers’ second preseason game was the first for Paul George and Nicolas Batum , who played 14 and 16 minutes, respectively, all in the first half. Batum started in place of the resting Marcus Morris, who was parked in a sideline seat near his fellow teammates in street clothes: rookie guard Jason Preston and center Serge Ibaka. Unlike Monday, Kawhi Leonard was not seen on the bench.

George took five three-point shots within his first eight minutes. Coach Tyronn Lue has talked about diversifying the offense through a focus on movement and passing, but make no mistake that while Leonard recovers, George is the centerpiece of the offense this season. Considering his 41% three-point accuracy in consecutive seasons, is there any added emphasis on asking him to add to his three-point volume, approaching or even exceeding his career high of 9.8 three-pointers attempted per game from 2019 in Oklahoma City?

Not necessarily.

Even as the game’s best high-volume shooters have cracked the double-digit average from deep in recent years, Lue would rather George “just pretty much take what the defense gives him” than enter games with an arbitrary total in the back of his mind.

“I mean if he’s shooting 10, 11, 12 threes a game, then you gotta take them, but if it’s getting to the basket, getting to the mid-range, you gotta take that as well,” Lue said. “Not putting pressure on him to shoot more. Just take what the defense is giving him and he’s gonna have a lot of opportunities, so we’ll see how the game goes.”

Lue focused in the first half on playing rotations that seemingly could reappear during the regular season, with Isaiah Hartenstein notably in the backup center role. Lue felt the starters, who shot 39% overall, three of 12 from deep and committed five turnovers, did a “good job” overall.

“Just a little careless in the first half turning the basketball over, just can’t have the careless turnovers,” he said. “We’ve gotta value the basketball and try to get a shot up every time we can, so other than that, I thought it was pretty good, pretty solid.”

2. Increasing pace of play

It’s the age-old question of the preseason: How much value should be gleaned from these results? That mileage might vary depending on which coach you ask. But for a second consecutive game, guard Eric Bledsoe has been easily able to dribble into the paint in the half-court offense and helped speed up the pace of an often-glacial offense last season.

Something else the Clippers hope translates to the regular season is the way he found center Ivica Zubac for lobs and dump-off passes, knowing where Zubac will be as if they have played together for longer than one month. Bledsoe had three points in 17 minutes but produced a team-high four assists, two of which found Zubac at the rim.

“Just pushing the pace, pushing the tempo, being able to get into the paint at will and getting Zu easy layups and dunks, but also getting our three-point shooters shots in transition as well,” Lue said. “His tempo, his ability to get into the paint is gonna be good for us this season.”

3. Working on rotations

By the third quarter, while the Kings rolled out their starting lineup, the Clippers started all reserves: Jay Scrubb, Luke Kennard, Brandon Boston Jr., Amir Coffey and Harry Giles. The Clippers’ bench was also missing Justise Winslow , who had played center and point guard Monday against Denver, because of a non-COVID-related illness, according to the team.

Sacramento outscored L.A. by 21 points in the quarter, which ended on a 32-10 Kings run.

Although impossible to look at the issues of the quarter and not see the imbalance of experience and talent, they were also playing without a seasoned, primary ballhandler. In the regular season Lue could stagger the minutes of Bledsoe and guard Reggie Jackson to ensure the second unit plays with either, as he did against Sacramento, when Bledsoe played the first seven minutes, then checked back in two minutes later in place of Jackson.

Starters assisted on six of their 11 field goals Wednesday; reserves assisted on 13 of their 24 field goals.

If Lue doesn’t stagger his starting guards’ minutes, could a bench unit with Serge Ibaka, Batum, Justise Winslow, Mann and Kennard pick apart defenses? Batum’s vision is as good as anyone’s. Part of the appeal of signing Winslow was his ability to bring the ball upcourt and add ballhandling without sacrificing size and defense. Kennard can make more plays than he’s often given credit for. Batum is optimistic about such a lineup.

“Going to be very interesting on defense, especially, with Justise and T-Mann we got like four guys who can switch on everything, with Serge and I, so it’s going to be interesting,” Batum said. “Guys like Justise and myself can create for the other guys and make sure T-Mann is freed up.”

4. Continuing the breakthrough

Mann’s transformation from college to his third NBA season continues to evolve. At Florida State, there were times he wouldn’t look for layups. So far this preseason, with his confidence-emboldening 39-point game against Utah only months old in his memory, he has made a jumper off one foot similar to Dirk Nowitzki’s trademark form and has found a reliable shot in penetrating deep into the paint before uncorking what is fast becoming his own trademark turnaround jumper.

That improvement is why some NBA general managers wrote him in as one candidate for a breakout season in their annual preseason survey. It was a compliment, of course, but for Mann such praise rings hollow.

“You said, GMs, the ones that didn’t draft me? Until the 48th pick?” he said. “I don’t care about that s—.”

5. The long haul

Batum turns 33 on Dec. 14, and he needs no reminder that he’s entering his 14th NBA season and has played about 10 consecutive months of basketball this year, when the Clippers’ conference final run bled into his preparation for the Olympics with France. He and Lue have discussed how to keep him fresh and Batum suggested he might not play Friday in the third preseason game at Dallas.

When the regular season begins, he made it clear that he will fill whatever role is asked of him. Whether it's 40 minutes one night, or 10 minutes the next, Batum said he won’t complain, a product of a veteran’s perspective. Hint: He probably won’t have many 10-minute nights. He does too many of the small things right to warrant a light workload.

“I thought I was done last year, thought I was done,” he said. “I'm like, reborn. Had a pretty good 2021 so far. Been to conference finals, got a new baby girl, got a silver medal, and I'm a knight now in France. I didn't expect that a year ago … if you tell me in one year, gonna go through all of that, I don't think I'd be — yeah, right.

“But I'm just happy to be in a great situation. My family's happy. Wife is happy. Kids are happy, and healthy, playing basketball in a great city, great organization, I'm good. Just happy to be here.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .

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