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Electric Paul George Can’t Lift Clippers Over Pelicans in 132-127 Defeat

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The Clippers lost, but we all win. Paul George is back, and he’s ready.

LA Clippers v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Paul George, LA Clipper, is back, and he looks GOOD.

And if Paul George could’ve played more minutes (and committed fewer fouls) he probably would’ve won this game. But he couldn’t (and didn’t), so Jrue Holiday went and won it for New Orleans instead.

In this battle of the short-handed, it was the shorter-handed Pelicans that earned the upper hand, riding fresher legs and sharper shooting to a 132-127 victory over the Clippers.

But enough about the loss for now, let’s talk about Paul George, who showed few signs of rust or unrecovered fitness in his return to game action. He made me a liar in submitting a bravura (albeit brief) performance, pacing the Clippers with 33 points in 24 minutes.

George showed off the entire toolkit, and it’s one of those expansive sets you’d need a hangar to lay out fully. He attacked the rim like a banshee, expertly curled off screens, fired scintillating passes, showed off a precise handle, shot like a marksman, and attacked the rim some more. His 33 points came on just 17 field goals attempts, of which he converted 10, and to which he added 10 free throws (on 10 tries) and nine rebounds and four assists. It’s only a run-on because he made it that way.

The lone stain on his otherwise spotless debut was the fouling. George earned five, and he did that in his first three quarters and 17 minutes, neutering his trademark defensive aggressive for the duration of his shift in the fourth. In fact, George’s shortest stint came in the second quarter, when he reentered the game to stem a 23-8 Pelicans run, only to earn his fourth foul and a return ticket to the bench after 13 meager seconds.

That, not coincidentally, was the arc of this game in miniature. The benefit of having a superstar — and make no mistake, Paul George played like a superstar — is the ability to control a game with ease. George’s first shift to start the game lasted only three minutes, and, upon his exit, the rest of the Clippers’ unfamiliar starting lineup quickly caved to their rambunctious opponents. It was largely George’s ability to steady the team’s play at multiple junctures that kept this contest competitive.

The Clippers required steadying because their defense flailed about, when they could be bothered to flail at all that is. In the Clippers’ defense — and I’ll defend them only because SOMEONE has to defend tonight — they played a demanding contest in Houston yesterday. And because Doc Rivers has relegated Ivica Zubac to the doghouse (12 minutes), he leaned heavily on the sturdy Montrezl Harrell, who chewed up the New Orleans paint (18 points, seven rebounds, six assists in 36 minutes) while neglecting to guard his own.

The Clippers’ mix of offensive proficiency and defensive futility resulted in early fireworks. The two teams combined for eight three-pointers on 15 attempts in the first quarter alone. Jrue Holiday was Alvin Gentry’s primary catalyst, blazing for 24 points (10-12 FG) in New Orleans’ 72-point first half, good for a 13-point lead at the break. Derrick Favors also rampaged, storming through the Clippers’ unlocked gates for 20 points and 20 rebounds in the game, nine of which came at the offensive end.

Montrezl led the Clippers on a third-quarter charge, eventually giving way to Lou Williams, who scored 18 of his 31 points in the second half. Unfortunately, Lou gave it all back and more on the opposite end, his vaporous defense feeding a first-half minus-21 mark, against which his second-half exploits could only earn back a point in the plus-minus ledger.

The Clippers’ defense also found some footing in the third quarter, holding Holiday scoreless and bothering the Pelicans into temporarily losing their range. It was reserve guard Frank Jackson who eventually found it, gunning his way to 23 points and holding serve for New Orleans while Holiday recovered his way.

Helpfully, the Clippers’ resurgent offense and its 55/46/77 slashline counteracted the second-rate defense, and LA held the lead until as late as the 3:30 mark in the final quarter. It was then that the energy and the focus relented — the lack of one probably accelerating the loss of the other — and let Holiday get cooking again. Jrue added 12 points in the final frame to tally a game-high 36 on just 24 shots, sealing and stealing the victory.

Of major note in this erratic game was the consistently profound play of Rodney McGruder, who canned a career-high five three-pointers to support 20 points in 36 minutes from the bench. I joked that someone should play defense, but McGruder definitely played some defense. (Some others did too. I see you Zu.) McGruder’s unflagging defensive intensity and offensive activity were more than a bright spot, and I’ve only neglected to mention him thus far because his imprint marked the game at-large more than any particular moment.

The Clippers got a critical wing back, and actually they may have gotten two if you count McGruder’s impressive performance, and you might (really) stretch it to a third if you include Terance Mann, who showed some spark in his first career start. In future load injury-managed games for Kawhi Leonard, it will likely be Mann who earns the playing time over Jerome Robinson.

You can be a little disappointed, because the Clippers probably could’ve won this game. But then you can rejoice, because they won something even better. Paul George is back, and he’s fantastic.

Notes:

  • Patrick Beverley was a surprise addition to the inactives. He sat to nurse a sore calf.
  • Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Jahlil Okafor all missed the game for the Pelicans due to various injuries.