LOS ANGELES — The first game of a back-to-back on this three game homestand was not easy. After a hot start by the Clippers, Portland stormed back, playing some of their best basketball of the season. After a back and forth second half, the Clippers stars took over in the right spots and closed the game out down the stretch.
Ivica Zubac had 14 points in the first quarter to lead the way and open up a big lead early, as the Clippers as a team shot 78% from the field in the opening frame. Russell Westbrook also provided some spark off the bench, finishing with 12 points, 2 rebounds, and 6 assists, while James Harden added 20 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and 2 blocks.
Paul George and Kawhi Leonard kept the Clippers alive and ahead in the final stretches of the game, both offensively and defensively, with George ending with 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists and Leonard finishing with a team high of 34 points, one game after scoring 41.
The Clippers are now 12-10 and 9th in the Western Conference.
Here are my three takeaways:
So many questions arose to open the season as to if Kawhi Leonard had taken a step back and if he would ever get back to dominance again. Well, over the past week or so, he has been the same Kawhi that all NBA fans know in terms of ability and poise. He is averaging 28 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 5.5 assists in the last week and a half to establish him again as a proven threat on offense.
Kawhi’s defense is a slept on topic this year, with his steals and defensive rating getting back to the numbers we saw from his peak years. This team absolutely still needs Kawhi, and if he can ascend to the numbers we saw from the second half and playoffs of last season, the Clippers will be dangerous against any team.
Zubac is averaging 14.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks in his last four games. The biggest point here is that his best game defensively came against the reigning Finals MVP Nikola Jokic. Zubac had a very rough start offensively to the James Harden era, as he and Harden had to find each other’s rhythm and where they like to maneuver the floor.
Now, these two have built enough chemistry to be dominant in the pick and roll and especially in the paint. The defense was always solid, but Zubac has now learned to use his off hand, as well as fine tune his footwork down low to evade some defenders when receiving an entry pass or out of the pick and roll. Utilizing Harden as a ball handler and distributor has turned Zubac into the best version of himself, and that duo will only get better with reps.
After acquiring Tucker in the James Harden trade, it looked like Tucker could fulfill some defensive needs and grit that was lost by those the Clippers traded to Philadelphia. Tucker is now out of the rotation and getting DNP-CD’s, as Kobe Brown (the Clippers first round draft pick in 2023) is now slotting in off the bench at the power forward position. He has stated that he knows he has a lot left in the tank an that he could provide a boost for a team.
There are also reports of contending teams wanting his services, and I expect the Clippers to either seek trades or inevitably buy him out. While Tucker can be productive for another team, his playstyle doesn’t fit this system and how they want to play. We will keep you updated as the situation plays out.
The Clippers turn right back around and face the Sacramento Kings Tuesday night. Tip-off is set for 7:30 PM PST at Crypto.com Arena.