In their first game since Paul George’s knee injury on Tuesday night (which seems to have avoided catastrophe and could see him return in the playoffs), the Clippers’ new-look starting lineup, with Eric Gordon in George’s place, stumbled. The unit lost their first quarter shift by 7 points against Oklahoma City, and then returned in the second quarter to lose their shift together by 6. Despite a slightly better third quarter performance that saw the lineup of Russell Westbrook, Gordon, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac close their first night together as starters -7 overall, this wouldn’t have been the same contest without a staggering bench bailout in both halves lifting the Clippers to victory.
Immediately in the first quarter, Bones Hyland (returning to the floor after seven straight DNPs) and Terance Mann brought a spark, and the bench lineups with that guard duo, Nico Batum, Mason Plumlee, and one of Westbrook or Leonard staggered in with them thrived all night–Leonard’s bench lineups were +25 in 10 minutes, while Westbrook’s were +9 in 7 minutes.
While Leonard and Westbrook were the focal points of their respective lineups, with 32-6-6-4 and 24-7-2(-4 turnovers) respectively, it was clear that the bench unit’s energy and synergy stood out. Hyland contributed 16 points, 7 assists (to only 1 turnover), and 4 rebounds while going +32 in his minutes. Mann added 14 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists while also going +32. Batum finally found his shot at home, going 4-6 from three en route to 12 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and a +34. Big man Mason Plumlee rounded out the second unit with more modest contributions of 2 points and 7 rebounds while finishing the game +28. The Clippers had their best three-point shooting game since the high-scoring double overtime thriller against Sacramento a month ago, hitting 18-37 from deep to break out of a little slump. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City struggled to get much going outside of their exciting trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, and Jalen Williams, as other Thunder shot a horrendous 16-51 from the floor.
This was a much-needed win for the Clippers in more ways than one. In a concrete way, they would have fallen into a tie in the loss column with OKC and been at severe risk of falling into the play-in tournament down the stretch of the season with a loss tonight. This game doubles as not only avoiding a loss, but knocking the Thunder back a step, granting the Clippers a little bit of breathing room between themselves and 7th. The season is still far from over, and where they land between 4th, 5th, and 6th is still up in the air, but the Clippers should be strongly favored to hold on to a top-6 finish, which would have not been the case with a loss tonight. The Clippers currently sit in fifth place with 35 losses, one loss behind fourth-place Phoenix at 34, and one loss ahead of sixth-place Golden State at 36. That dynamic isn’t particularly scary (in fact, 6th could be preferable to 4th or 5th for a number of reasons), but the pack of six (!!) teams ranked 7th-12th who sit at 37 losses certainly is.
It was also important for the Clippers to get a home win against a mediocre team (something that hasn’t been a given this week, with home losses to Orlando and OKC), especially in their first game since learning they’re likely to be without Paul George for the rest of the season. They need to take care of business for the standings (the hard games on the schedule are a lot harder without PG), but they also need to both build some confidence and figure out how to set up the team in his absence. The starting lineup’s struggles tonight warrant substantial concern, as Kawhi-led units should be able to beat average teams and the bench probably won’t go +30 again, but it’s always easier to take a deep breath and make measured adjustments after a feel-good, fun win than a frustrating loss. Fortunately, the Clippers have a couple more relatively easy tests upcoming, with two more home games against (slightly) under-.500 opponents (including the New Orleans Pelicans, who are in the aforementioned 6-team pack chasing them) before heading out on the road again. With just 8 games left in the season, they can’t afford to leave more winnable games on the table.
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