But buried deep within a clunky, chaotic game — one that saw passes sail into the stands and bodies sprawled across the hardwood — was a glimpse at the Clippers’ balanced and lethal late-game offense and, thus, their formidable ceiling.
“That was an ugly win, but it was beautiful,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said after watching his team commit a season-high 23 turnovers. “We were so sloppy. Part of it was that we were trying to get the ball to guys instead of trying to score. … If we just trust the pass and find the open guy, the open guy will make the shot. I thought we did that down the stretch. I don’t think we did that most of the game.”
Indeed, the Clippers, pegged as preseason title favorites, looked very much like a team that was using a game in November to work through situations that usually would be addressed during training camp in October. This was unavoidable to a degree, with Leonard missing five games already because of load management and a knee injury and George sitting out the first 11 games of the season as he recovered from two shoulder surgeries.
The major formalities were addressed Wednesday — Leonard went last during player introductions and was given the ball with the score tied at the end of regulation — but a clearly defined two-man dynamic never crystallized. Leonard unleashed a poster dunk on Daniel Theis and sealed the win by blocking Kemba Walker, but he scored 17 points on 20 shots and committed five turnovers. George had a steadier effort with 25 points on 18 shots, yet he turned the ball over five times and continued to deal with conditioning issues.
“We’re still learning each other,” Leonard admitted. “I don’t think we’re going to be this type of offensive team that we were tonight. [George and I] are both on minutes restrictions. It’s hard to get a flow. Repetition is what we need right now.”
The defining and most promising sequence for the Clippers came at the end of regulation, and it involved every member of their crunchtime lineup. During a furious rally, Los Angeles erased a 90-84 deficit through crisp ball movement and execution.
Instead of Leonard or George going to the post or settling for contested jumpers, the Clippers found a rhythm that forced the Celtics into scramble situations. During the final 3:16 of regulation, all five Clippers closers — Leonard, George, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — scored. What’s more, Los Angeles’s final four baskets of regulation were assisted.
George laid out his vision this week for how the Clippers could force a defense to pick its poison. If opponents sought to trap or deny Leonard or George, they could reply by finding open shooters such as Williams and Beverley. If defenses tried to blitz Williams in pick-and-roll situations, Harrell would be open going to the basket or in position to find one of Los Angeles’s stars or shooters with a kick-out pass.
“You can’t shrink the floor when you’ve got me, Lou, Kawhi and [Harrell]," George said. “Whoever is getting that type of [pressure] defense will pick you apart and make plays offensively.”
Sure enough, the game’s decisive sequence went according to that script. With the Clippers leading 104-102 in the final minute of overtime, Boston sent two defenders at Williams in a pick-and-roll situation. Williams threaded the ball to an open Harrell, who dove into the paint and forced Jayson Tatum to come from the weak side to take away a possible dunk. That left Marcus Smart, the only remaining defender on the weak side, to guard both Beverley in the corner and Leonard at the angle.
Smart stuck with Leonard up top, daring Beverley to take and make the dagger three. The veteran point guard, who earned the game ball with 14 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists, stepped up and did just that.
“When we’re in pick and rolls, no one is helping off that top guy, which you see a lot in the NBA,” George explained afterward. “You just can’t. That’s where we’re going to get better, once we really learn [to play with] each other: how to pick apart the defense in the pick and roll.”
There are shades of the Golden State Warriors’ once-vaunted “death lineup” to be found in the Clippers’ closing group. Williams pulls defenses outside the arc like Stephen Curry, Harrell makes plays in the middle like Draymond Green, Beverley spaces the court to the corners like Andre Iguodala, and Leonard and George force defenses to stay honest and attentive like Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson.
When those Warriors peaked in 2017, they had well-honed counters to every possible defensive scheme. While Durant and Curry were awe-inspiring headliners, Golden State was virtually unstoppable during a 16-1 postseason run because it boasted five efficient, proven and trusted scoring threats on the court simultaneously to close games. No weak links.
These Clippers don’t have the Warriors’ firepower and still have a long way to go in the chemistry department, but they enter this new chapter with a familiar egalitarianism that should figure prominently in their own title hopes.
“I don’t care about who gets shots, and Kawhi doesn’t care about who gets shots,” George said. “We’re both willing passers. We need everybody. This is not a two-headed monster. I’m not afraid or scared to say I’ll lean on those [supporting] guys on a nightly basis.”