The Los Angeles Clippers finally got to see their offseason dreams fully realized.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George suited up alongside one another for the first time in a 107-104 overtime victory against the Boston Celtics on Nov. 20. They followed that up with a close win against the Houston Rockets and a blowout of the New Orleans Pelicans in their next two games.
While the Clippers still have plenty of kinks to work out on offense, the early returns from the Leonard-George era this past week suggest they’re the team to beat in this year’s wide-open title race.
The Clippers’ first offensive possession Wednesday against the Celtics demonstrated what will eventually make them so dangerous.
Late in the shot clock, George ran a pick-and-roll with fourth-year center Ivica Zubac, threading a pass through a double-team to the big man. With the Celtics’ defense in scramble mode, Zubac turned and fired a pass to Leonard, who splashed a three-pointer over Marcus Smart’s outstretched arm.
Paul George PnR with Ivica Zubac leads to a Kawhi Leonard three for the first points of the night. pic.twitter.com/7hzWfgy3d9
— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) November 21, 2019
Three possessions later, Leonard returned the favor.
Like they did to George on the opening possession, the Celtics sent a double-team at Leonard as he ran a pick-and-roll with Zubac. But rather than pass to the big man, (who positioned himself at the elbow to force Smart to stay nearby in the paint), Leonard fired a bullet to George, who drilled an open three-pointer.
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) November 21, 2019
Since George and Leonard are both threats to create off the dribble for both themselves and others, they push defenses to the breaking point. Go under the screen, and they’ll pull up for an open jumper. Send a double-team their way, and they’ll swing the ball either to the roll man or to an open three-point shooter.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Clippers offense Wednesday, however. They finished the game with a season-high 23 turnovers, which head coach Doc Rivers addressed during his postgame press conference.
“With 23 turnovers, we were so sloppy,” he said. “We were almost trying not to get in each other’s way at times. You could kinda feel that. But to have the will to still try to win the game when you know you’re not ready yet, against a very, very good basketball team, that was good for us.”
Leonard and George each had five giveaways against the Celtics, although they combined for only five against the Rockets two nights later. Given how much both are testing their limits as playmakers—Leonard is averaging a career-high 5.5 assists per game, while George totaled 15 assists against the Celtics and Rockets—they’re bound to grow through some growing pains that end in sloppy giveaways.
Luckily, the Clippers have a deep supporting cast that can help them steal wins even when they aren’t at their best.
Point guard Patrick Beverley erupted for 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks, while Lou Williams chipped in 27 points off the bench on 10-of-21 shooting against the Celtics. Two nights later, Williams and fellow reserve Montrezl Harrell combined for 44 points on 17-of-29 shooting, single-handedly outscoring the Rockets’ reserves (21 points) by more than twofold.
“I think the beauty in this team is we don’t care who gets the shots,” George told reporters after beating the Rockets. “If we attract double-teams, we’re gonna make plays out of it. Myself, Lou, Kawhi, anytime they put two on us, we’re looking to make the right plays. And that’s the beauty of this team: Nobody cares who’s getting the shots down the stretch, or who’s getting the looks. You’ve just got a group of guys that just want to win, and that’s all that matters.”
In that 122-119 victory over the Rockets, the Clippers shot 51.7 percent from the field—their fifth-best mark of the young season—even though George finished only 4-of-15 on the night. Whereas James Harden and Russell Westbrook combined for 59 of the Rockets’ 119 points that night, Leonard and George had only 43 of the Clippers’ 122.
That’s what makes this year’s Clippers so dangerous: They aren’t only the George-and-Leonard show.
Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, is averaging 22.5 points per game on 43.4 percent shooting, and Harrell isn’t far behind at 19.0 points on 60.4 percent shooting. That’s similar to the production they were providing last year while helming even bigger roles. (One isn’t like to complain about having to do less work while getting similar or even better numbers!)
Beverley likely won’t have many huge scoring outings this season, although the defensive attention that George and Leonard command will create plenty of openings for him to do so.
“I remember I was telling Doc, I came off one pick-and-roll, I was so open, I didn’t know what to do,” Beverley told reporters Wednesday. “They get so much attention. It’s crazy.”
That symbiotic relationship is a deadly combination for opponents, as the Pelicans learned the hard way Sunday during a 134-109 thrashing.
Playing without No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson and starting center Derrick Favors, the Pelicans fell into a 40-27 hole in the first quarter and never dug their way out. Harrell tied his career-high with 34 points on 13-of-18 shooting, while Williams chipped in 19 off the bench to help compensate for George’s 6-of-20 night (6-of-16 from deep).
The Clippers have two legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidates in Williams and Harrell, which reduces the nightly offensive burden on George and Leonard. Knowing that they don’t have to go off for 25-plus points every night just to keep their team afloat, those latter two can instead focus on stretching their abilities as playmakers and expending energy on defense, where they’re already wreaking havoc.
After their home run of a summer, the Clippers knew they’d have to exercise patience early in the season. George was working his way back from a pair of offseason shoulder surgeries, while Leonard would likely have his regular-season workload limited after that strategy paid off with a championship for the Toronto Raptors last year.
Getting more reps will help the Clippers develop into a well-oiled machine offensively, but that won’t be an overnight process. With Leonard certain to miss more games—particularly in back-to-back sets—and George likely to have his minutes kept relatively in check, we might not see the Clippers at their full potential until the playoffs roll around.
But we’re going to see plenty of glimpses.
And that’s what should have the rest of the league so terrified. That even this nascent form of the Clippers—which has plenty of room to grow—already knocked off two potential contenders in its first two games with Leonard and George.
Just imagine what they can look like come March or April.
Bryan Toporek is a contributor at The Basketball Writers. He’s also a Quality Editor for Bleacher Report, co-hosts The NBA Podcast and contributes at FanSided and elsewhere. He still trusts the Process.