Paul George’s return sparks a defensive rebound for Clippers

Tyronn Lue looked down at a boxing score from his team’s win over New Orleans late Sunday night and a satisfied smile crossed Tyronn Lue’s face.

“Zero tries out of three for Valanciunas,” said the Clippers coach, still reading the newspaper in front of him. “How about?”

In three previous matchups against the Clippers this season, Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas had operated at will, scoring 14 of his 30 three-pointers even when his danger was behind the arc on the scouting report. But on Sunday, as the Clippers defeated the Pelicans 119-100 to break the West’s eighth-best record, Valanciunas couldn’t break free for a single three-point attempt.

For Lue, Valanciunas’ 0-on-0 line represented more in the stats than a matchup gone right – it also reflected the renewed influence of Paul George.

In the three games George has played since returning from an elbow injury that cost him three months, Lue has noticed a surge in the team’s defensive mentality, particularly early in games. With four comebacks of 25 or more points this season, the Clippers have proven they can handle a late rally, but relying on resilience is a shaky formula for postseason success, and George said he has his teammates challenged on his return against Utah to take the next step towards their playoff prep by knowing the game plan and executing it sharply from the start.

When George backed up his challenge by instantly tearing away dribbles from Utah’s Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, a trickle-down effect began as teammates realized they had to balance George’s intensity with the postseason looming.

“Especially in our first game against Utah, in the first quarter, he had a couple of steals to start the game, a couple of strips, when you see your No. 1 guy getting so tough on defense, you have to der Follow lead,” center Ivica Zubac told The Times. “And that’s it. PG is our leader out there and he’s diving for balls, giving 100% effort on every possession. There’s nothing else you can really do, you have to do the same.”

The Clippers (39-40) broke Sunday’s win in the second quarter by keeping New Orleans scoreless for nearly five minutes and conceding just 13 points.

“Our defense hasn’t been as good as we need it to be, but we’ve been able to strengthen our defense in the last few games, which has been great,” said Lue.

In a season where the Clippers have consistently understaffed, there were nights when they were focused but couldn’t keep it up because of jumbled rotations with players who didn’t know each other. Reintroducing George into the lineup “makes it easier for everyone else,” Zubac said.

Terance Mann smiles and holds up his index finger after scoring while Jonas Valanciunas looks on

Clippers guard Terance Mann celebrates his goal as New Orleans Pelicans center Jonas Valanciunas stands nearby at Arena Sunday.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

“I feel like we’ve done this before, but some nights we were missing guys and it was tough and sometimes we didn’t have enough,” he said. “It just didn’t show. Now with PG we are good.”

Not only has it rejuvenated the Clippers’ defensive potential, but it also instilled a confidence that belies their record. And while security guard Norman Powell trained on the Arena court ahead of Sunday’s tip-off to take the final step toward his recovery from a broken foot bone, forward Marcus Morris Sr. said he didn’t feel like a typical one feel eighth seed. Should Powell and Kawhi Leonard, whose return is not ruled out, return, the Clippers would be one of the most intriguing teams of the postseason.

You are already among the most confident.

“We’re a confident group and we believe we can compete and play and beat anyone,” said George. “I think it was just difficult for them to get through this stretch without me in the line-up. Like I said, it’s just a lot of guys who have had to carry and accept different positions, different roles and more things on their plate that they have had to play through and give.

“But I felt they’ve been great at conducting our season up to this point. But we’re a confident group and I think my return definitely gives our dressing room more of that certainty that we can put together another great postseason.”

The second-ranked Grizzlies have been a matchup nightmare for the Clippers all season with their face-off style punishing the Clippers in the paint. The Clippers have played tough against top-seeded Phoenix and are feeling confident after leading the Suns to six games in last year’s Western Conference Finals despite playing without Leonard and with Zubac and Morris limping and George, Reggie Jackson and Nicolas Batum up are fleeing.

The fluidity and lack of rust seen in George’s 34-point, 4-steal performance in his first game from injury to spark a 25-point comeback against Utah surprised even his teammates. Like their coach, the players said they saw it as a sign bigger than a couple of numbers on a box score. If George had returned full-time on business, he would expect the same from them as the postseason loomed.

“Just being a vet himself and knowing how to keep your body in the right shape and how to stay mentally involved and on the team just showed me he’s a leader,” Morris said.

And does that give you extra confidence going into the playoffs?

“Damn yes,” Morris said. “Hell yes.” Paul George’s return sparks a defensive rebound for Clippers

Andrew Schnitker

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