Five months into a Clippers season that has produced more consternation than joy, every setback and shortcoming dissected under a microscope of their own championship expectations, came a practice Monday that left a notable impression on forward Nicolas Batum.
New backup point guard Bones Hyland was a burst with the ball. New backup center Mason Plumlee’s size balanced the Clippers’ rotations. And veteran guard Eric Gordon could defend players far bigger than his 6-foot-3 frame — and shoot over them too.
“It’s gonna be easy,” Batum said, “to play basketball with those guys.”
If that first practice together had shown glimpses of why the front office believed its trade-deadline activity had fortified its playoff rotation, the first game underscored it.
With Kawhi Leonard making seven three-pointers to tie his career high en route to 33 points, and Norman Powell scoring 24 points to lead a revamped bench lineup, the Clippers looked for three quarters like a team that might yet have another gear to hit, leading Golden State by as many as 18 points Tuesday in Crypto.com Arena before beating the Warriors 134-124.
Hyland scored six points on six shots with four rebounds and five fouls. Gordon had seven points on seven shots with three rebounds and three assists. And Plumlee finished with eight points, five rebounds and three assists.
Each passed the eye test, just as they had Monday.
“I liked what I saw tonight,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
Shortly after Plumlee checked in late in the first quarter, the big man sporting a black eye stopped a drive by Jonathan Kuminga at the rim.
A drive by Hyland finished with an assist under the basket to Plumlee. When Batum sneaked up behind a Golden State rebounder, popping the ball loose, it found its way to Hyland, who sank a three-pointer then smacked his right hip as if holstering a pistol.
Hyland’s speed, which caused Batum to take notice during their first practice Monday, was the obvious selling point of his trade. Hyland didn’t need to know more than a fraction of the playbook against the Warriors to know if he used his quickness to exploit defensive gaps, it could create an offense by itself.
“Getting out more, sometimes we might not have to call a play,” Hyland said.
But with a 6-9¼ wingspan, the 6-2 guard also affected the game with three offensive rebounds, his last with three minutes to go in the third quarter leading to his layup to push the Clippers’ lead to 96-89.
Gordon, who said he felt comfortable acting as a point guard, showed it with his drive and assist for a Powell basket that held the Clippers’ lead at 118-106 with seven minutes left.
“They looked great, looked like they had chemistry,” said Paul George, who had 20 points and eight assists against two turnovers. “…That second unit had some juice to it.”
The Clippers finished with 33 assists to only eight turnovers, their fifth game with single-digit turnovers in their last seven. And that was with the Clippers playing fast, getting the ball inbounds and upcourt quickly — something Lue praised — after limited time together.
Even though the Clippers were coming off three days off and Golden State had played only 24 hours earlier, and even though the Warriors were without the injured Stephen Curry, and even though the backcourt duo of Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole had made a combined one of nine three-pointers, the Clippers still trailed at halftime 65-61.
The culprits were multiple: allowing 42 second-quarter points, and Golden State seven more rebounds and 12 more free throws. The combination turned a promising opening quarter into more of the same inconsistency that had defined the first iteration of this roster, before the trade deadline.
Any deadline that results in as much rotation upheaval as the Clippers’ requires a grace period. Yet while Lue is typically patient with making lineup changes, preferring to let lineup combinations play out over sample sizes of about 10 games, the coach acknowledged he doesn’t have that kind of time anymore.
Only 22 regular-season games remain.
“I think you’re looking at five or six games and just kind of see what we have and how we want to play and who fits with who,” Lue said.
On the other side of that evaluation period could be the answer for whether the Clippers feel they need to fill their last open roster spot with a traditional point guard. George and Marcus Morris Sr. on Friday openly campaigned for adding former Lakers guard Russell Westbrook should he receive a buyout in Utah, and Batum said Tuesday he also would welcome Westbrook. Batum recalled being perceived as the “worst player in the NBA” after being waived by Charlotte in 2020, only to have his reputation rehabilitated during productive seasons with the Clippers, and said that experience wouldn’t allow him to discount Westbrook’s value.
“The team is different,” Batum said, “so maybe it’s a better situation for him.”
The answer the Clippers provided during a 44-point, zero-turnover third quarter and furious beginning of the fourth — with Powell charging through the paint for a right-handed dunk, followed by his three-pointer, and Gordon drilling a three-pointer for emphasis and an 18-point lead — displayed why the front office was bullish on its deadline moves and believes they could create a better situation for the team come the postseason.
“With the new additions I think we got better in terms of having two starting-five lineups with a big in both lineups,” George said. “It’s going to come down to a best-of-seven for every team in the West. There’s really no cakewalks.”