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Clippers’ woes on protection limiting Kawhi Leonard’s affect


For all the training-camp dialogue about whether or not the Clippers boasted the NBA’s deepest roster, it obscured what the group knew to be the season’s extra fundamental fact.

No matter what number of switchable wings or defense-spreading shooters on the roster, the Clippers’ potential was tied to the capabilities of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the franchise cornerstones round whom this season’s offense and protection have been tailor-made.

On Friday in San Antonio, George performed top-of-the-line video games of his profession as a ballhandler, his 16 factors and 12 assists taking a backseat to his most sudden contribution — zero turnovers, for a star averaging 3.3 of them since becoming a member of the Clippers in 2019. Coach Tyronn Lue referenced George because the group’s level guard.

With each drive that started with a slice into the Spurs’ paint and dunk on the rim, Leonard scored 36 factors, with 4 dunks — this after 12 in his first 22 video games — to proceed a course of that started to take form 5 weeks in the past. Since Dec. 12, Leonard has averaged 24.6 factors, 6.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 41% three-point capturing throughout a 15-game span, a development that has grown extra pronounced in his final six video games as Leonard has averaged 29.8 factors on 50% three-point capturing.

In what has develop into by far essentially the most encouraging pattern of an uneven Clippers season, Leonard seems just like the all-NBA-caliber wing the Clippers hoped he would return to being following his restoration from 2021 knee surgical procedure.

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“Playing through our best players, that’s how we want to play, that’s how this team has been constructed,” Lue stated Friday. “When we have those guys on the floor we know we can be a dangerous team.”

As for the progress of this group as a complete, nevertheless, this was not what was hoped for halfway by means of a season with designs on a title — needing each little bit of their stars’ offensive effectivity to outlast, by 5 factors, a Spurs group with a 14-32 file and designs on successful the Victor Wembanyama draft sweepstakes.

One constant perpetrator has been one thing else that has been constructing for one month: a protection that, as a Spurs offense that ranks among the many NBA’s worst can attest, is struggling to get stops.

“Offensively we know we’re going to be able to score the basketball,” Lue stated. “That’s very encouraging. Just now defensively we have to do a better job of locking in and understanding our principles.”

Once ranked as second-best within the NBA by means of mid-December by permitting 91.9 factors per 100 possessions of halfcourt protection, the Clippers have tumbled to fourth-worst ever since, permitting a median of 104.4 factors. Their transition protection has been leaky, as properly, however opponents have performed in opposition to what needs to be a set Clippers protection 80% of the time within the final month. But with the Clippers repeatedly unable to show groups over, Lue steadily utilizing lineups that includes a number of smaller guards — constructions he has acknowledged result in defensive shortcomings — and with Leonard and George out and in of the lineup, and roles up and down the roster altering nightly, the protection has sagged.

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Nowhere has that been extra apparent than in defending the rim.

During the season’s first two months, because the Clippers have been constructing one of many league’s finest defenses, their opponents shot a league-worst 58% on pictures inside six ft of the rim when the shot was defended.

Over the previous month — coinciding with the beginning of a five-game East Coast highway journey — Clippers opponents have shot a league-high 70% on defended pictures in the identical space.

The Spurs, for his or her half, shot 58% Friday on pictures generated by their 62 drives in opposition to the Clippers, the protection permitting layups on back-cuts a number of instances as a result of a defender had misplaced their man.

All season, the Clippers have held their breath hoping Leonard may regain his explosiveness, and after Friday, Leonard “looks really good,” Lue stated, “his pop is there.”

Now the wait begins on the restoration of their protection.

Note: Reserve guard Luke Kennard didn’t take part within the group’s apply Saturday, in line with a group spokesman. Kennard has missed the final seven video games due to a calf harm he’d initially suffered earlier within the season. Lue has stated the group has a “plan in place” for easy methods to reorganize its glut of guards, however hasn’t been in a position to implement it till Kennard returns.


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