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Inconsistent Clippers Fight Off Gutsy Hornets, 111-96

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It was closer to the Phoenix performance than was comfortable, but the Clippers recorded the win.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

It looked good, like a return to dominance. Then, suddenly, it looked bad, like a return to indifference. And that was just the first quarter.

The Clippers avoided such extremes for the rest of the game, but still waffled between acuity and lenience, ultimately leveraging their heavy talent advantage for a 111-96 victory that was in doubt for far longer than the score might indicate.

After wasting an 8-0 start and an eventual 14-point first-quarter lead fueled by four Landry Shamet threes, the Clippers capitulated to their visitors, allowing Charlotte a 17-4 run to close the quarter. The Hornets, fewer than 24 hours off a loss to the Lakers, turned Clipper turnovers into three-pointers of their own.

Charlotte kept things close through halftime despite inspired play by Ivica Zubac — more on that later — before a sharpened Clippers squad more decisively won the third quarter. JaMychal Green capped the third frame with a three for a 12-point lead.

The Clippers stretched the lead some in the fourth, but the Hornets lifted themselves off the mat with a 7-0 mid-quarter run. (I’ll eat my preview words. They played hard throughout and refused to go away.) It took some typical Lou Williams/Montrezl Harrell buddy-cop chemistry to settle the game for good, even though Kawhi returned from the bench in the closing minutes JUST IN CASE.

If the game narrative seems erratic, it’s because game factors weighed heavily on both sides of the scale. To wit, a breakdown:

Things That Were Good For the Clippers

  • Kawhi Leonard, who should never be taken for granted. He was simply the best player on the floor. Again. He’s the Clipper most likely to make me exhaust the thesaurus. He was sublime. 30 minutes. 30 points. Seven rebounds. Six assists. Three blocks. Two steals. Abounding highlights. He’s a treat and the most comforting of safety blankets. He makes it so the game never seems completely out of control.
  • Zubac, who patrolled the paint like an angry mama bear. See his career-high five blocks among otherwise modest numbers and know that his impact on the game was profound. The Clippers’ defense was far from airtight, but it was rarely Zubac responsible for the leakage.
  • Shamet may have scored 14 of his 16 points in the opening quarter, but he showed throughout that he can be the offensive engine when his shot is falling. (Brian Sieman cleverly called him the team’s leadoff hitter. I want to steal that.) He made some enterprising drives into the paint, showing valuable aggressiveness on a night when many Clippers seemed content to aimlessly swing the ball around the playground. His sterling plus-18 mark for the game was tied for the worst among a starting group that did more than its part.
  • The starting lineup ranged from Shamet and Patrick Patterson’s plus-18 to Patrick Beverley’s atmospheric plus-24. So, you might see what’s coming...

Things That Were Good For the Hornets

  • The benches. BOTH benches. Yes, Lou and Trezz closed this one out, and yes, their 42 combined points is par for their typically impressive course. But, their apathetic defense made unfortunate contributions to those minutes when the game scale tipped back Charlotte’s way. Note that no Clipper reserve finished with a positive rating. Note also that at halftime, Lou and Trezz’s ratings were minus-12 and minus-13 respectively. I did not enter the game expecting the Hornets’ bench to outplay the (justifiably) lauded Clipper bench, but sure enough, that’s what happened for long stretches of this game. Credit to Devonte’ Graham — Charlotte’s leading scorer on the season! — and Malik Monk — finally showing signs of life — for scampering through a Clippers defense best described as inconsistently engaged and organized.
  • Clippers turnovers. 21, to be exact. Zubac had a team-high four, his unsteady hands representing perhaps the only stain on his night. If the distributor-less Hornets hadn’t also coughed up 21 turnovers, this game might have been closer.
  • The Clippers defense, which wasn’t Saturday bad, but also wasn’t Tuesday/Thursday good. I’ve already covered this a lot, but I’ll register my surprise at how often Clipper defenders were spun in circles, palms up. I think their most frequent defensive communication was, “Oh shit.” I’m confident their defensive scheme isn’t supposed to be “Olé”.
  • Charlotte shooting, which was eye-openingly plentiful. The Hornets converted 14 threes on 39 attempts, good for a respectable 36%. (Which was also significantly cooler than their 60% first quarter.) Five Hornets made at least two from distance. Cody Zeller made three!

The Clippers might be back in the win column, but there remains plenty of yuck for film-room fodder. The schedule provides no quarter. It brings the Jazz, Spurs, Jazz again, Bucks, Blazers, Raptors, then Rockets. Sheer talent won’t be enough. The Clippers still have some cleaning up to do.