1) Clippers seven-game win streak hints that maybe this team is different
“We just got to get better. We’ll work on it… Because fact of the matter is, we have to be a better closing-out team.”
“We just have to change, pretty much. We’ve got to change it. We’ve got to get better.”
Those are the words of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, respectively, from just a couple of weeks ago, after they watched Stephen Curry get white-hot and the Clippers blew a 21-point second half lead to the Warriors and lost. That loss gave ammunition to critics who said nothing had changed with the Clippers since the bubble, where they legendarily blew a 3-1 series lead to the Nuggets.
Except since that day, the Clippers have changed.
They have been better — in fact, they’ve been elite. They have played like a team that can be a threat to the Lakers atop the West.
With a 108-100 win against the Thunder Sunday, Los Angeles has won seven straight. This latest victory was the kind of win elite teams get — the Clippers were not clicking on offense (a Sunday day game hangover), but Kawhi Leonard accounted for 57 of the Clippers 108 points (counting buckets and assists). One of the game’s top players lifting his team on an afternoon the rest of the squad was not playing at an elite level.
Leonard has played at an MVP level during the win streak: 29.1 points a game while shooting 57% overall and 48.7% from three, plus pitching in 5.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists a game.
During the seven-game win streak, the Clippers have a +15.6 net rating (using Cleaning the Glass and its garbage time filter), with the best offense in the NBA and the seventh-ranked defense. That net rating would still be third-best in the league in that stretch behind red-hot Utah and the team both the Jazz and Clippers are ultimately chasing, the Lakers. All three of those teams would have a top 10 offense and defense in that stretch (as would Denver).
The Clippers and Lakers are both 13-4, tied for the best record in the NBA.
The Clippers knew they needed a change last offseason and they didn’t go halfway. Coach Doc Rivers was unexpectedly fired and the front office shook up the roster, letting Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell move down the Staples Center hallway. Serge Ibaka was brought in to give the Clippers a more modern center, the kind Nikola Jokic could not play off the court in the postseason.
We’re almost a quarter of the way into this regular season and the Clippers have started to feel different (even if this win streak has not come against the toughest of schedules; you have to beat who is in front of you). Paul George has been on his vengeance tour and is playing the best basketball of his career (23.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.4 assists a night shooting 50.4% overall and 48.4% from three), and the Clippers have been as good as anyone night in and night out.
They also know that’s ultimately not what they will be judged upon — unless the Clippers are putting win streaks together in the playoffs, unless George’s vengeance tour and Leonard’s MVP play continue into the postseason, we will not view them as different. The Clippers and Milwaukee are both in the same space this season: Many will view them as the same team until they prove different on the NBA’s biggest stages.
But the Clippers are looking like a team that just might be able to do that. The biggest threat to the Lakers’ re-peat dreams may not be across the nation in Brooklyn; it might be right down the hall at Staples Center.
2) Gordon Hayward‘s game-winner gets Hornets back in win column
It’s for moments like this that Charlotte paid Gordon Hayward the big money.
Hayward got the ball out top in a tie game with less than 10 seconds left, drove past Orlando’s Evan Fournier, and hit a left-handed lay-up with 0.7 seconds left to get the Hornets a much-needed win.
Gordon Hayward (39 PTS, 13 in the 4th Q) hits the GAME-WINNING @hornets layup with 0.7 left! pic.twitter.com/nUzTqUjs64
— NBA (@NBA) January 25, 2021
Hayward had 39 points on the night, shooting 15-of-25 and draining five threes. Miles Bridges added 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting for the Hornets. Charlotte looked like a team on its way to a fifth-straight loss but changed the game opening the fourth quarter on a 25-4 run, then they held on for the win.
Charlotte signed him this offseason in part to add another ball handler and shot creator to the mix. The Hornets are rightfully high on LaMelo Ball’s start to the season, but they wanted Hayward — and Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier — to take some of the pressure off the rookie. Charlotte didn’t want to be a team that just handed the keys over to a high draft pick and say “the ball is always yours, wecome to the school of hard knocks.”
Hayward has done that and more this season, when healthy. And it’s been good for the development of Ball, who continues to come off the bench with less pressure.
Charlotte itself is feeling the pressure to get some more wins — it is in the mix for one of the play-in series in the East. That’s a good pressure to have, and a potential postseason appearance would be a welcome change for the Hornets.
3) After nearly two weeks off due to COVID-19, Wizards return to action. With Westbrook. And they lost.
Washington had to get a couple of big men added to the roster to — signing Alex Len and Jordon Bell — but they did it: The Wizards had eight healthy players and were back on the court on Sunday, taking on the Spurs.
It was the first game in almost two weeks after the coronavirus impacted more than half the roster. The one bright spot was Russell Westbrook — sidelined by a sore quadriceps muscle when COVID-19 hit the team — was healthy and ready to go.
The Wizards looked like a team with pent-up energy early on and had a 10-point lead in the first half. In the second half the time off — the lack of conditioning, the rust — showed itself. San Antonio put up 73 points in the second half and pulled away for a comfortable 121-101 win.W
Washington gets a day off, then has a road back-to-back at Houston — Westbrook’s return to the city, and the Wizards see old friend John Wall — then New Orleans. A tough couple of games for a team trying to get their legs back under them and bounce back from a rough 3-9 start.
It’s not a normal season in Washington (or anywhere else), but at least the Wizards are playing games again.