The less said about the first quarter, the better. Both teams, two of the top four offenses in the NBA, could not buy buckets or get consistently open looks. The only player on either side who could score was Kawhi Leonard, who had 12 points on 5-6 shooting. Still, despite Kawhi’s efforts, the Clippers led just 26-21 after one due to the rest of the team’s poor shooting. Of course, while the Celtics were missing some good looks, it must be said the Clippers’ defense played well.
The Clippers bench unit with Harden hung even with the Celtics early. After a couple minutes, Mann returned for Russ and the Clippers poured it on, with their defense leading to easy buckets in transition. At the 5:58 mark, the Clippers had expanded their lead all the way to 43-30. At this point the starters for both teams returned. Fortunately for the Clippers, the tenor of the game remained the same. While the Clippers shot a horrid 5-21 from deep in the first half, the Celtics were an even worse 4-23. And the difference lay with Porzingis out, as the Clippers shot better from two and got to the line more than the Celtics. Both teams had only four turnovers, but the Clippers superior execution and stifling defense had them up 55-39 at halftime.
Jayson Tatum came out aggressive to start the half, scoring seven quick points against the Clippers’ three to get the lead down to 12, 58-46. At this point, the Clippers’ defense locked in like I’ve maybe never seen it before. They were on a string, switching and rotating and helping as needed, consistently forcing the Celtics into turnovers or bad shots. They were disciplined in not fouling and going straight up. And they were smart in pushing the pace the other way. The Celtics could not score, and the Clippers could, and the lead grew, and grew, and grew, until finally, the Clippers were up 76-46 with 4:54 to go in the quarter in front of a stunned Boston crowd. The Clippers’ bench finally started trickling in, and while the Celtics were able to score a few points, the Clippers maintained a 30 point lead largely through the efforts of Kawhi Leonard. The lead grew to 36 before a brief Celtics spurt cut it to 31 after three.
The Clippers still had their regulars out to start the 4th, but that only lasted 90 seconds, as a couple of steals led to easy baskets and a 35-point edge. It was garbage time from there, and that garbage time was ugly, but it never quite got to the point that the Clippers had to put any of their key player back in. Lets just forget that last 10 minutes never happened and only remember the first 38.
Kawhi Dominates: Kawhi’s box score – 26 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocks in 29 minutes – is very good but not insane. However, that belies his performance, which was masterful. He was absolutely everywhere on defense, and was the lynchpin in the Clippers’ incredible defensive showing. On offense, he was patient and didn’t force shots, instead attacking ripe mismatches like the smaller Holiday and White (as good as they are, they just can’t bother Kawhi). He was clearly, obviously the best player against a Celtics team with Tatum (perennial All-NBA), Jaylen Brown (All-Star), and Jrue Holiday (All-Defense). When he’s playing like this, almost anything is possible for the Clippers.
Theis Revenge Game: Daniel Theis has been excellent for the Clippers, especially considering he was a buyout guy. And, against his longtime former team, he stood out, scoring 18 points on 8-9 shooting, grabbing 7 boards in 26 minutes, and playing fantastic defense at the rim. Its hard to think the Clippers had to play Moses Brown real minutes last year – I wish I could forget, but the memories are seared into my brain. Competent backup big men minutes are so important, and having not just Theis but also Mason Plumlee (also solid in this one) has been massive for the Clippers. Fantastic performance by the German veteran.
Harden in Control: This was not a great James Harden game. He was 2-11 from the field and 0-6 from three, scoring just nine points in 27 minutes. It was, however, a totally acceptable game from him in a Clippers jersey, as he contributed on the glass with eight rebounds and dished nine assists to just a single turnover. The Clippers’ offense nearly always runs smoothly with Harden at the helm even if he isn’t having an individually great game, and that says everything about his brilliant playmaking and his fit on this roster. His lob to Terance in the 3rd quarter was the capstone on the Clippers’ huge run and just a glorious bit of basketball.
Standings Watch: The Nuggets beat the Sixers and the Thunder and Suns didn’t play today, but almost everything else went the Clippers’ way standing wise. The Kings toppled the Mavs, the Nets beat Houston, the Bucks smashed the Pelicans, and, most importantly, the Spurs defeated the Wolves, pushing the Clippers into being even with the Wolves in the loss column. The Clippers continue to edge closer to the top of the West and put more distance in front of the teams behind them, and that will be key as their schedule gets more hectic the last half of the season.