Kawhi Leonard-Paul George couple pays dividends for Clippers

When Nicolas Batum mentioned to Clippers teammates last week that he thought they were about to start a five-game winning streak, his reasoning for choosing such a specific number was simple to deduce.

The sixth game of this sequence? He was scheduled to land on Sunday, the same night after Game 5. And as anyone who has watched the NBA this season knows, the Clippers were again a prime example of the league’s increasingly broad strategy of retaining contributors on a night of back-to-back games, valuing rest before the playoffs over reps in the regular season.

The result on Sunday was as predictable as Batum imagined: as he played several players normally out of coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation during the second half – and with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Reggie Jackson sidelined for precautionary reasons, and Marcus Morris Sr. and John Wall unavailable through injury – the Clippers trailed to 40 before seeing their five-game winning streak end in one Lost 122-99 at Cleveland.

For a team that had started to find its rhythm during the streak leading up to Sunday’s “loss of schedule”, the game marked a milestone in the schedule: the Clippers are no longer expected to play consecutive days until the 2 and March 3.

This creates a 12-game window – Game 12 is the first night of this consecutive set – in which Leonard and George should be available, injury-barring, to play every night as the Clippers try to catch up the field in the Western Ranking. of the conference and construction of chemistry.

All but one of those twelve games are against teams that entered Monday with winning records — and potential playoff teams. While the Clippers are 19-9 against teams that had lost records on their game day, they are only 9-15 against .500 or better opponents. Beating good teams has been a missing piece of the Clippers’ credentials, and they know it, with George saying last week that the team’s current six-game road trip would be a “good test” due to the caliber of opponents. .

Left on the road trip: visits to 23-26 Chicago, 33-17 Milwaukee, 27-24 New York and 30-19 Brooklyn.

“We will be tested against six playoff teams,” George said of the trip, which began with a 120-113 win in Atlanta the Saturday. “We just have to accept the challenge.”

The roster that begins this 12-game streak likely won’t be the same as the roster that ends it. The Clippers have made a trade before the deadline – Feb. 9 this season – each of the past five years and have been linked to point guards such as Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley. Through all the potentially moving parts, the Clippers seem better prepared for this challenge than at any time this season due to the Leonard-George pairing.

George averaged 24.4 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and more than one steal while shooting 55% overall and nearly 44% on three-pointers during the winning streak. For his part, Leonard averaged 30 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and another steal while shooting 63%, including 48% on three-pointers. Both were nominated to be the conference’s most recent player of the week.

During the streak that began Jan. 20 and stretched to Saturday’s win at Atlanta, the Clippers outshot opponents by 46 points in 136 minutes together for George and Leonard, while shooting 59% from the ground in total and almost 48% on three points. Among 147 pairs of teammates who had logged at least 100 minutes together during that week-long period, pair George and Leonard recorded the second-highest field goal percentage – behind that of George and center Ivica 60% Zubac.

The Clippers’ championship hopes this season hinged on the team’s belief that George and Leonard could eventually look as dominant together as they had in the 2021 playoffs, just when Leonard suffered a season-ending knee injury, when each produced 30-point games and strangled defense against Utah. In spurts this season, this pairing has once again resembled this vintage.

Lue first noticed Leonard had started to look like his All-NBA self again in a Dec. 12 win over Boston, but the build was slow as he gradually began to trust his repaired knee. surgically and to display some explosiveness this team officials were waiting to return.

After watching Leonard return from a quad injury on his own schedule in Toronto in 2019 and gradually build his fitness and refine his efficiency over this championship season, his former Raptors and current Clippers teammate Norman Powell , said Leonard’s progression was nothing new to him. .

“The thing with Kawhi is he’s going to do his best for him, work on his game every day and he’s going to play basketball the right way,” Powell said last week. “I think that’s what frustrated people when he came back. He made the game simple. He wasn’t as aggressive until he understood the game, the pace of the game and the way he wanted to play. Now you see her body and her legs coming together, kind of like a mid-season form coming together, taking shape.

Powell added: “I think the media and the fans have their own opinion on how someone should treat their injuries and things like that. But we as players, we want to be there, we want to play.

“We put a lot of time into our game and Kawhi is the same way. Kawhi is always trying to figure out how he can improve. He wants to be out there and help this team win because that’s what’s most important.

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