Clippers take control in second half to beat Thunder without Paul George

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — The image that returned Wednesday from the scan of Paul George’s injured right knee provided about as good of news as the Los Angeles Clippers could have hoped: George’s awkward land Tuesday after grabbing a rebound did not damage any ligaments – and the All-Star forward is not expected to need surgery, either.

What isn’t any clearer is whether George could be available during the playoffs.

With only three games separating fourth through 12th in the Western Conference standings entering Thursday, there is no guarantee whether the Clippers — 127-105 winners over Oklahoma City on Thursday — will advance directly to a seven-game first-round series, or fall back into the play-in tournament. How long the Clippers stay alive matters for any potential return to action.

George is currently wearing a brace on his sprained right knee and using a crutch while he rests for the next two-to-three weeks, a timeline that is likely to result in George missing the rest of the regular season, which ends April 9. After that his mobility will be re-assessed by the team, and should he be cleared, a ramp-up period would then begin. Within the team, there is a belief that it might be overly optimistic to believe George could be ready by the first round.

Clippers teammate Terance Mann took the diagnosis as “definitely better than what it could have been” after watching George’s right knee bend backward.

“Everybody’s kind of feeling better about it,” Mann said, “and knowing that we could potentially get him back is good.”

So was their response without George on Thursday at Arena.

After a stagnant second quarter, the Clippers controlled the second half behind Kawhi Leonard and stellar bench contributions from players who will see their responsibilities increase with George out. The Clippers are now 5-2 this season in games when Leonard has played but George has not.

“We’ve been used to playing with one of those guys out so we kind of know how to play,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

The Clippers outscored the Thunder by 12 in the third quarter by curbing their turnovers and maximizing their possessions with timely shot-making. They sustained the turnaround in the fourth quarter as Bones Hyland recaptured his playing time and Nicolas Batum, who had shot 31% on three-pointers in his previous nine games, recaptured his dependable shooting stroke. Hyland, who had not played in eight games, and Batum combined to make eight of 10 three-pointers as the Clippers pushed their lead to as many as 25 points with 5 minutes, 52 seconds remaining.

George is “a little disappointed as expected, but I think we got the best-case-scenario as far as what we thought it could be,” Lue said. “And so, being reevaluated in two, three weeks is something that we are looking forward to. And so his spirits are down, but that’s to be expected when it’s late in the season and when you want to help your team.”

Hyland shined as part of backcourts with Russell Westbrook and Terance Mann, and Mann and Leonard, occupying a role that could go to Norman Powell once he returns from a shoulder injury.

Life without George will also require the Clippers’ re-worked starting lineup, which includes guard Eric Gordon in George’s spot, to find its footing – and quickly.

By halftime, the starters had combined for eight of the team’s nine turnovers and eight of their 18 rebounds. Leonard’s perfect 7-for-7 shooting for 15 first-quarter points buoyed the Clippers’ offense – but he didn’t attempt a single shot in seven second-quarter minutes. On offense, the Clippers were 8.8 points better per 100 possessions with George on the floor than off this season, the team’s largest disparity.

And that means that, of course, the workload in George’s absence will increase especially for Leonard, who added 15 more points during a vital third-quarter turnaround.

At a point when every game is critical for the Clippers to avoid falling into the play-in tournament between seeds seven through 10, there still remain two sets of games played on consecutive days – meaning two games that the Clippers could be without Leonard, too. In his first season following his recovery from a 2021 knee ligament tear, Leonard has yet to play on consecutive days.

“We need (Leonard) to be in attack mode all night, can’t ease into the games, and then making the right place for other guys to get shots,” Lue said. “But now he’s gonna have a lot more pressure to guard the better players because PG took that responsibility of guarding the best player to start the games.”