After 14 games, the long-awaited Kawhi Leonard-Paul George tandem made its debut for the Los Angeles Clippers on Wednesday.
It wasn’t always pretty.
But it was effective as the Clippers won a 107-104 overtime thriller over the Boston Celtics.
On a night that saw the Clippers struggle on offense and players not named Leonard or George star down the stretch, the Clippers won a tightly contested game against one of the best teams in the league.
It was the exact kind of game that should strike fear into the rest of the NBA.
For much of the night, the Clippers leaned on their defense to overcome their own offensive struggles. And when they found themselves facing a 10-point fourth quarter deficit, they looked to familiar faces who didn’t arrive in the biggest transaction of a busy NBA offseason.
Williams, Beverley star down the stretch
Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley traded big buckets in the fourth quarter as Williams capped a 10-0 Los Angeles run with a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws to take a 97-94 lead with 20.7 seconds left in regulation.
Jayson Tatum responded with a game-tying step-back 3-pointer of his own that forced overtime when Leonard’s answer at the buzzer was off the mark.
When it came to crunch time in the extra session, Beverley hit the biggest shot of overtime, a corner 3-pointer to extend the Clippers lead to 107-102 on a pass from Montrezl Harrell.
It was the type of grind-it-out effort that could come to define this team.
Much has been made of the potential offensive firepower of Leonard and George playing alongside Williams. And rightfully so. In a post-Hamptons Five NBA where parity reigns, touting a pair of All-Star level scorers and a sixth man who’s made a career as a closer amounts to an embarrassment of riches.
But lighting up the scoreboard won’t be the identity of these Clippers, as it wasn’t on Wednesday.
The bedrock of this team is defense, which the Celtics got a heavy dose of from the opening tip. Boston missed its first 16 3-point attempts of the game and shot 39.4 percent from the floor for the night as the Clippers regularly challenged shots and swiped at passes.
Tatum was immune from L.A.’s defensive efforts in a 30-point night that saw him hit 12-of-24 field goals.
But Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown combined to shoot 7-of-31 from the floor as the Clippers forced Boston to look to Marcus Smart jump shots multiple times down the stretch.
The Celtics stayed in the game courtesy of 18 offensive rebounds and 23 forced Clippers turnovers. But they couldn’t fend off the decisive fourth-quarter Clippers push.
Clippers much more than Leonard, George
Leonard was not at his best with a 17-point, six-rebound effort that saw him shoot 7-of-20 from the field. George looked strong again scoring 25 points to go with eight assists and five rebounds.
But it was longtime closer Williams who led the way with 27 points, 21 of which came after halftime. And Beverley was at his best pestering self, coming up with three steals and hitting shots when the opportunity arose en route to 14 points, seven assists and a whopping 16 rebounds.
Potential for defensive greatness
The defensive effort should be there every night for the Clippers.
George is a four-time All-Defensive Team honoree. Patrick Beverley has made a career out of pestering opponents’ best perimeter players en route to two All-Defensive Team selections. And Leonard — a two-time Defensive Player of the Year — is arguably the best defender of his generation.
Meanwhile the offensive options down the stretch are myriad in tight games like Wednesday’s. Against the Celtics, it was Williams and Beverley. On other nights, it will surely be Leonard and George.
The Clippers, who overachieved last season and won two playoff games over the Golden State Warriors without the benefit of a pair of All-NBA players, already had a winning culture before George and Leonard arrived.
And even on an off night from Leonard, the Clippers looked as good as advertised in grinding out a tough win over an Eastern Conference contender.
Watch out, NBA. The new-era Clippers have arrived.