While the Lakers continue to flutter around .500, while fans rip coach Darvin Ham’s lineups and rotations and demand his head — or a season-saving trade, or both — the Clippers quietly and smoothly keep winning.
Once past the difficulties of adjusting to James Harden’s early-season arrival, they’ve been content to let the drama simmer and headlines erupt at the other end of the hallway at Crypto.com Arena. Their 127-116 victory over the Lakers on Tuesday, led by Kawhi Leonard’s 25-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist performance in his second career triple-double, was their sixth win in their past seven games and 11th in their past 13, a surge that has them wedged comfortably in fourth place in the West at 28-14.
“You damn near have to play perfect basketball to beat those guys. They’re in a really good rhythm,” Ham said after the Lakers (22-23) lost for the 14th time in 22 games since they won the NBA’s in-season tournament.
That kind of success gave Clippers coach Tyronn Lue the luxury of being critical of his team after the victory, which also featured a 23-point, 10-assist performance from Harden and 17 off the bench from Norman Powell.
Lue was especially unhappy that his players let their guard down because they knew they wouldn’t have to face LeBron James, who sat out with a chronic ankle problem and missed only his fifth game this season.
“Not performing at a high level. I don’t like to see that. Because we’re better than that,” Lue said.
The Clippers got too sloppy in the second half, Lue said, allowing a lead that was 77-64 at halftime and 106-97 after three quarters to dwindle to two, at 108-106, early in the fourth quarter. Their 11 turnovers in the last two quarters stuck out for him.
“It started in the first half and it kind of bled over into the second half and just, we wasn’t really good defensively,” he said. “A lot of rotations was messed up, not getting back in transition and all the things we talked about doing, we didn’t do a good job of tonight. And so those are things we got to be sharp with every single night.
“We were all over the place. We’ve just got to continue to keep getting better.”
Leonard, who recorded his first career triple-double on Jan. 24, 2020, offered milder criticism of the Clippers’ efforts Tuesday. But he acknowledged defensive improvement will be important for them to keep their roll going during a seven-game trip that starts Friday in Toronto.
“Just from tonight, they’re a good transition team and we allowed them to play to their strengths. They got out in transition, made layups, open threes, and I think those are the things he’s talking about,” Leonard said. “And obviously, some of [it was] our game plan slippage, so we just got to be better at that and be locked in into what we got to do coming into the game.”
Leonard credited his assist total to his teammates’ shooting success. The Clippers shot 59.1% from the floor and had 33 assists on their 52 made field goals. “Passing the ball, they knocked it down with confidence and me making shots early allowed them to throw two people at me and then just tried to make the right play from there,” he said.
More often than not, he did.
“You just talk about someone that always gets better and puts the work in to get better,” George said. “I mean, he has this kind of night, we just made shots for him to give him the triple-double, but he’s been putting these kinds of games together where he’s playmaking and he’s scoring and rebounding at a high level. We made shots for him tonight to give him the triple-double, but he’s been doing this all season long.”
Just like the Clippers have been winning consistently since they figured out how to best use Harden and to have Russell Westbrook (16 points, three assists and two steals Tuesday) come off the bench. They’re still without center Ivica Zubac (right calf strain) but they’ve kept chugging along, maybe not making as many headlines as the Lakers but winning more games.
The Clippers didn’t play their best on Tuesday. But good teams find ways to win when they have to shuffle their lineup or overcome challenges from opponents that have scouted them well, and that’s what the Clippers did against the Lakers.
“They played well. I thought they intentionally played fast to try to throw us off,” George said. “I thought it got us out of matchups and had us scrambling to find matchups and who we were supposed to be matched up to. So that was their game plan. I thought they stuck to it, made it challenging for us regardless of who they had on the floor, but I thought we stayed poised.
“Every game ain’t going to be perfect. Although we wanted to have this game decided way earlier than it was, I thought we stayed poised and did our job to finish the game up.”
There’s no style points in the NBA, just wins and losses. And the Clippers are piling up the wins.