February 24, 2024

After Grammy trip, Clippers are home again — and on top of the Western Conference

LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue entered the visitors’ news conference room at State Farm Arena and took a few moments to look at the final box score. Lue’s face was wrought with conflict — the Clippers won by scoring 149 points on the second night of a back-to-back. But the Clippers also allowed 144 points to the host Atlanta Hawks.

Lue was asked if he liked offense after the Clippers scored their second-most points all season while allowing their most in a win.

“No, I like defense,” Lue deadpanned. “And we got to be a lot better.”

Lue went through a list of grievances after the Clippers edged the Hawks 47-43 in the fourth quarter: giving up 3s they weren’t supposed to, miscommunication, not playing through the game. It was not unlike Lue’s itemized list of defensive struggles the Clippers had to begin the previous Friday night’s game in Detroit.

But Lue had to add some perspective in this moment, as his Clippers had just won six of the seven games on their longest road trip of the season.

“With that being said, this was a hell of a trip for us,” Lue said.

The LA Clippers franchise originated in 1970 as the Buffalo Braves. The only  trip the Braves had of at least seven straight games came at the end of the 1972-73 season, when they lost all eight games on a season-ending trip. The San Diego Clippers never had a stretch of at least seven consecutive road games.

Since moving to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers have had 25 trips of at least seven games. This year’s Clippers finished with only the sixth winning record on those trips. The only trip with as good of a record was when the 2014-15 Clippers also won six of seven games on a November trip.

This was the best Grammy trip the Clippers have ever been on, and because of it, at 34-15, the Clippers sit atop the Western Conference, the latest in a season they have ever been in first place.

“Finding ways of doing different things that keep us connected,” said point guard Russell Westbrook, who completed his first trip of more than six games in his 16 NBA seasons. “When you’re away from your family, it’s a little different, especially for me with kids. Being able to use my teammates more to have conversations … enjoying the game, enjoying the process, is something we’ve done a great job of.”

On the court, forward Kawhi Leonard led the way, compiling a team-high 28.0 points per game while shooting 58.8 percent from the field and averaging 3.4 assists to only 1.1 turnovers. He was named Player of the Week in the Western Conference for the first time all season.

“Player of the Month,” quipped Lue, who himself was named the Western Conference Coach of the Month for games played in January.

MVP buzz has started to pick up for Leonard too. His efficiency and effectiveness toward winning are always going to be his priorities, and the Clippers were so powerful on this trip that Leonard only played 23 fourth-quarter minutes in the past seven games. There were three fourth quarters (at Toronto, at Boston, at Washington) in which Leonard did not play at all.

If there is a counting statistic Leonard wants to see increase for himself, it may be his free throws. He averaged only 3.0 free-throw attempts per game on this trip, and his 4.1 free-throw attempts per game this season are his lowest in nine years. Leonard did not formally address the media after the Washington game, but when I saw him in the hallway, he was lobbying.

“Tell them to get me more calls,” Leonard told me, flicking his wrist with a smile.

While Leonard’s performance on this trip was at a season peak, Paul George was merely gutting it out. The trip began with George being listed as questionable with a groin injury, but he was able to play in the decisive wins at Toronto and Boston. George struggled in Cleveland and it was clear he needed to miss some time. That happened in Washington, with George sitting out and third-year forward Brandon Boston Jr. getting to play his best rotation minutes of the season.

“Just trying to make it to the finish line,” George told The Athletic in Cleveland about finishing the pre-All-Star break of the schedule.

George, who was named an All-Star this season for the ninth time, was back for the next game to start in Detroit, then played both nights of the back-to-back in Miami and Atlanta. George has only missed three games this season, while Leonard has only missed four. Neither has been out in the same game.

“PG, playing through what he’s playing through — all of those guys are huge for us,” Lue said Monday night.

Perhaps no Clipper was leaned on more during this trip than starting point guard James Harden, who played a team-high 35.3 minutes per game over the seven games. When Harden was on the floor, the Clippers outscored foes by an average of 15.7 points per game.

“You see our record?” Harden told The Athletic when asked about his satisfaction at the end of the road trip. “There you go.”

And Harden did everything between scoring (17.4 points, 5.1 free-throw attempts), rebounding (7.6, second behind only center Mason Plumlee’s 8.9), playmaking (8.9 assists, only 2.0 turnovers), defense (1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks) and shooting (2.9 3s, 39.2 percent 3s). The only blemish for Harden was a 41.2 percent field goal mark.

“We’re good enough as a team to win games in different ways,” Harden said. “Whether it’s scoring the ball at a high clip, scoring 150 points or scoring 100 points and grinding it out. For us, it’s just staying focused.”

Harden, a 15-year veteran, has not missed a game this season due to injury. Lue has tried to manage Harden’s workload, but he has been fairly indispensable. Harden averaged 81.3 touches per game during the Grammy trip, over 28 touches more than the next Clipper (Leonard) and a byproduct of having to take on a larger role with George managing his health. But the 34-year-old Harden isn’t fazed by doing more, even at this stage of his career.

“I’m in a good place,” he said of his physical condition. “Focused on what I got to do. Find a way to impact the game every single night. That’s how good of a player I am. Not just scoring the basketball, but rebounding the basketball, making everyone’s job a lot easier. I’m more than a scorer, so for me, it’s just impacting the game at the highest level.”

This was a notable trip for Westbrook as well, in multiple ways. The 16-year veteran brought a game ball home with him after he reached the 25,000-point milestone in Detroit. That game against the Pistons was his second of the Grammy trip in which Westbrook scored at least 20 points off the bench (he also did it in Toronto). The only other game this season in which Westbrook scored at least 20 points off the bench was in the comeback win against the Brooklyn Nets.

Like in the game against the Nets game, Westbrook played in several lineups without a center. It’s something Lue had to do more with starting center Ivica Zubac out for most of the trip. The Clippers outscored opponents by seven points in the 23 minutes Westbrook was on the floor without Zubac, Plumlee or Daniel Theis during the trip. Westbrook took turns guarding centers such as Jarrett Allen, Marvin Bagley III, Jalen Duren and Onyeka Okongwu.

Westbrook, perhaps more than any other Clipper, embraces a road atmosphere. There are going to be jeers that get focused on way too much. But there were many instances of Westbrook being praised in enemy territory. His jersey populated entire arena sections. Westbrook got standing ovations in Washington and Detroit. It’s something he does not take for granted.

“When I step on the floor, I always say, you never know who’s watching,” Westbrook said in Atlanta. “My dad told me that when I was younger. And basketball, regardless of what gym I walked into, whatever time I was playing, whoever was there … you never know who’s watching.

“I really take that to the heart. Meaning that, it can be a kid, a mom or dad, whoever that may be. A grandma, grandpa, uncle, auntie, whatever that may be. Sister or brother that comes to the game for the first time and can afford to come to the game one time, and it’s the night that they’re coming out and they’re watching the Clippers or watching myself and coming to cheer for me.

“So anytime I get a chance to try and acknowledge as many people as I can, I try to show them a little love, to make that moment special for them and then find ways to be able to make sure they remember moments like this for the rest of their life.”

The only Clippers who weren’t on this trip at all were developmental guard Joshua Primo and two-way contracts Moussa Diabaté, Jordan Miller, and Xavier Moon. When Zubac joined the team in Washington, it was just over two weeks into what was supposed to be a four-week timetable to re-evaluate his right calf strain. But Zubac had a timetable of his own, and he did not just join the team for good vibes. He targeted the Miami game against All-Star Bam Adebayo, and he met that goal.

As good of a trip as this was, it wasn’t perfect. Leonard had to call out the Clippers’ defensive effort, and Lue was thoroughly dissatisfied with the defense Monday in Atlanta. The Clippers get offensive rebounds, but the struggles on the defensive glass pinpoint their biggest area of concern.

The Clippers need athletic size. Amir Coffey has emerged as a rotation fixture and put up 57.8/44.4/89.5 shooting splits on this trip, but he is a small forward. Leonard acknowledged to The Athletic that he has to hold down the power forward position “until we get a real one.” Lue knows the Clippers can outscore anyone, but this road trip featured one team — Cleveland — that had both exceptional size up front and a strong defense.

The Grammy trip is over, but the games continue. The Clippers have one more before the trade deadline, and it’s against the oversized New Orleans Pelicans. And LA will take the floor as the top seed in the West. But it has more work to do — on and off the floor.

“That’s not right, that’s not fair, but it is what it is,” Lue said about the quick turnaround to play an eighth game in an eighth city Wednesday night. “We got to be sharper. We know we’re going to be able to score the basketball, because we’re very talented. Defensively, that’s where we got to hang our hat on if we want to go deep into the playoffs and be an elite team. And we’ve done it, we’ve shown glimpses. But we had some slippage on this road trip. So we got to get back home, clean stuff up and be better on the defensive end.”

(Photo of James Harden and Kawhi Leonard: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)