Clippers’ momentum is high as season resumes. Can they be even better post-All-Star break?



At NBA All-Star Weekend, Phoenix Suns power forward Kevin Durant was asked what player and team outside of his own was the best he had seen this season. He praised the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves for playing well.

But the Timberwolves weren’t his final selection.

“Clippers (are) playing great ball,” Durant said. “If anything, I’d probably say Clippers, and give it to Kawhi (Leonard) as the best player I’ve seen.”

The praise for the LA Clippers and All-Stars Leonard and Paul George was a consistent theme at the league’s midseason showcase. At 36-17, the Clippers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for the NBA’s fourth-best record at the break. It is the first time since 2013 that the Clippers have had a top-five record at the All-Star break, and that season was the last time the team had a higher win percentage (39-17, .696) than they do now.

“It’s just a tribute to the guys,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said of the praise from his peers. “Like I say, just putting the work in, understanding we had to sacrifice and understanding where we came from, losing six games in a row, to where we’re at today. That’s a long way. I give those guys credit for putting in the work, willing to sacrifice and continue to keep getting better.”

But there’s a lot of work ahead for the Clippers. The Clippers are returning on the road Thursday against the Oklahoma City Thunder, a critical regular-season series finale that marks the tiebreaker between the two teams below the Timberwolves in the Western Conference standings. The Clippers have the Timberwolves twice in March.

“It’s an opportunity to get us ready,” Clippers shooting guard Terance Mann said. “To be able to face good teams, teams that see themselves going far in the postseason … it’s going to be good.”

There won’t be many opportunities to practice, as only four of the Clippers’ final 29 regular-season games (over 53 days) come with more than one day of rest.

What helps the Clippers is that their stars are healthy and locked in. All-Star Weekend certainly provided an assist. Leonard, who missed last week’s game at Golden State with a left adductor strain, downplayed the injury over the weekend before playing only 10 minutes of Sunday’s All-Star game. None of Leonard’s minutes came after halftime.

But Leonard has been a driving force for the team this month. He knows that in order for the Clippers to maintain their level of play, they must take another step.

“Just focused on our team and trying to be the best team,“ Leonard said Sunday night of the team’s goals over the final stretch of the season, “make sure we have carryover so we can reach our potential.”

The only All-Star to appear in Sunday’s game to play fewer minutes than Leonard was George, who sat the entire first and fourth quarters. George has dealt with a sore groin and knee pain for much of the last two months, but he has only missed three games.

It was important for the Clippers to come out of the break intact, and that happened. The Clippers have no injuries to report.

“When you look back, us being healthy and together, means a lot,” George said. “It’s just momentum going into the second half.”

Another advantage for the Clippers is that they have James Harden playing at a high level. Harden hasn’t missed a game since debuting for the Clippers on Nov. 6. He has provided LA with a pick-and-roll decision-maker capable of mixing in high-scoring games and helping the Clippers get great shots inside and outside of the paint.

This time last year, the Clippers lost five straight games out of the All-Star break while integrating new point guard Russell Westbrook. Now, with Harden in the first unit and Westbrook in the second unit, the Clippers are expecting to be better going into the remainder of the season.

“It’s just constant communication. I think those guys talking a lot, just having a lot of dialogue amongst each other, just where they want the ball, how they want to run plays, how they see different things and they all had to sacrifice,” Lue said. “And, so, when you have three dynamic players like that — and then four with Russ [Westbrook] — it’s very important that they talk and communicate and understand that sacrifice is going to be important if you want to go to the next level. And I think they’ve done a good job of doing that, and now we just have to put in and learn things offensively and defensively to be better.”

The focus on being better offensively is sometimes difficult to see for a team that ranks third in offensive efficiency and first since Dec. 1, a span that has seen the Clippers compile the NBA’s best record (28-7). But Harden believes that Thursday’s game in Oklahoma City is an opportunity to be even cleaner offensively.

“I think the last 29 games that we have going into the postseason is making teams beat us and not making mistakes,” Harden said. “If we’re making mistakes, don’t compound our mistakes. Once you get that right, in the postseason, it’s going to be very, very difficult for a team to beat you four times. … I think that’s one thing that we’re focused on — the details.”

Another part of finishing the season strong is having everyone know their place on the depth chart going forward. Third-stringers P.J.Tucker and Bones Hyland rejoined the team after getting deactivated for last week’s Golden State game. There aren’t going to be lineup changes to account for positional holes or long-term injuries.

“It’s good that we didn’t make any trades and have to implement new players and try to have them learn our system,” Lue said. “Guys have been here for a while … just certain things we got to come in and continue to work on.”

“The last two (years), I feel like we made trades,” added Mann. “We’ve got our whole team, same guys, same vibes. It’s not new. No buyouts or nothing. It’s just a whole different situation.”

Three games separate the Timberwolves, Thunder, Clippers and the defending-champion Denver Nuggets at the top of the West. The standings could undergo change on a daily basis.

The Clippers have come a long way, but there is plenty of mileage left on the marathon.

“We want to win for sure,” Lue said. “Every single night, just constantly getting better: That’s got to be our mentality. Win or lose, we got to keep getting better, understand our philosophies on both sides of basketball, and continue to grow as a team. We got to make sure we’re doing that.”

(Top photo: Meg Oliphant / Getty Images)





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