Paul George scores 33 as Clippers rally to beat Trail Blazers

Andrew Greif
·5 min read
Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George, left, hits a shot over Portland Trail Blazers forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, right, during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
Clippers guard Paul George hits a shot over Portland Trail Blazers forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson during the first half in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday. (Steve Dykes / Associated Press)

Considering the sizable holes in each roster Tuesday, it would have been easy to dismiss the Clippers’ 113-112 win in Portland as a shell of the first-round playoff preview this matchup currently appears on paper.

The Clippers, the Western Conference’s third-place team, were missing All-Star Kawhi Leonard — who will be out at least three games while managing soreness in his right foot — as well as starters Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley and because of it, used this season’s 21st different starting lineup.

The sixth-place Trail Blazers, with All-Star Damian Lillard out for a third straight game because of a hamstring, and center Jusuf Nurkic sidelined, too, were missing their offensive engine.

And yet should these teams meet again for a seven-game series in late May, there could be lessons the Clippers draw on from one month earlier. They swept the regular-season series with Portland by doing the kind of thing that has happened so rarely — winning a tight game in the final minutes — by replicating some of the discomfort they had caused Portland’s backcourt in two previous wins, when they had trapped and blitzed Lillard into two ineffective performances.

“Portland had the game and we were able to continue to keep fighting and take this game from them,” Paul George said. “We celebrate that. We played great down the stretch. We weren’t great for the whole 48 [minutes] but I thought when we needed to be great, we were great.”

With 27 wins by double digits this season, the Clippers most often have hit the fourth quarter in cruise control rather than worrying about clutch efficiency. In fact, they had played the third-fewest clutch minutes in the NBA this season — just 70. Only six of their victories had come by five points or fewer, a figure of both their ability to overwhelm opponents early and their lack of polish during some finishes.

But trailing 112-107 with 63 seconds to play Tuesday, after a three-pointer by Portland’s C.J. McCollum, the Clippers scored on their final three possessions, including a pair of free throws by George with 4.8 seconds left to pull ahead by one. They then survived McCollum’s leading jump shot from the elbow in the final second.

George was incandescent with 33 points, including 10 in the final 3:41, to score at least 30 points for the sixth time in his last seven games.

“He was special,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said, and helped his team overcome its 1-for-9 three-point shooting in the final quarter.

"PG’s cool as a fan," said Clippers center DeMarcus Cousins, who won a 2016 Olympic gold medal on the U.S. team alongside George. "He leads by example, he comes in, he works every single day. Every night he steps on the floor, you’re gonna get an A-plus effort. One of the most talented players I’ve ever seen lace them up. We gotta stop the PG slander. It just won’t be accepted around me."

Portland guard Norm Powell scored just six of his 23 points in the second half. McCollum scored 28 points but needed 26 shots.

Leonard, who had sat out three games last week because of the foot, only to return Sunday, “wants to play,” Lue said, but the coach made clear the team won’t take the risk with the Clippers comfortably near the top of the West standings.

“With the doctors and sports science guys and the trainers we have, sometimes we got to protect the players from themselves,” Lue said. “And right now, we are doing the right thing by Kawhi.”

Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. goes up for a shot over Portland Trail Blazers forward Robert Covington.
Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. goes up for a shot over Portland Trail Blazers forward Robert Covington during the first half in Portland, Ore., on Tuesday. (Steve Dykes / Associated Press)

Taking precautions for Leonard created a familiar challenge for his teammates — playing short-handed in a game in which the Clippers never got comfortable shooting the ball (28% from deep) or made the Trail Blazers uncomfortable handling it (just six turnovers).

To fill in the gaps, they received 11 points in just 13 minutes off the bench from center DeMarcus Cousins. If his contributions can’t necessarily be counted on come the postseason, with no promise his second 10-day contract with be guaranteed through the season's end, the strong play of Rajon Rondo is something the Clippers hope will carry over in the first round.

The Clippers acquired Rondo at the trade deadline to win games in the postseason, in games against opponents such as Portland. On Tuesday, his nine points, seven assists and six rebounds helped the Clippers claim a game weeks earlier.

“We had all the chances to give in, but our team just kept fighting,” Lue said. “We kept scrapping. We didn’t want to lose that game.”

UP NEXT

VS. MEMPHIS

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.

On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330.

Update: Memphis (29-27) could have big man Jaren Jackson Jr. back for the first time since he injured the meniscus in a knee last summer during the NBA restart, after he was upgraded to questionable ahead of the matchup. He would join a Grizzlies offense that owns the league’s top rating in April (120 points per 100 possessions), one spot ahead of the Clippers (118.8).

For the record:
8:14 AM, Apr. 21, 2021: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of Portland’s sidelined players. It is Jusuf Nurkic, not Enes Kanter.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.