February 23, 2024

Milestones in the NBA are often noisy affairs. Games are paused. Public-address announcements are made. Attention is paid.

When the Clippers reached their own against New Orleans inside Smoothie King Center, there was no fanfare, not even acknowledgment. But what it lacked in celebration, it held in significance.

Five minutes into the first quarter of Friday’s 111-95 victory, the Clippers’ starting lineup of point guard James Harden, wings Terance Mann, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and center Ivica Zubac played their 265th minute of the season — the most any Clippers lineup has spent together since Leonard and George arrived in 2019.

It does not appear to be mere coincidence that the Clippers, as a whole, look more dangerous than at any point in Leonard and George’s four previous seasons, with Friday producing the latest example. It wasn’t so much that they won for a 14th time in their last 16 games, to improve to 22-12, it was their utter dismantling of New Orleans along the way.

The Pelicans had won nine of its previous 12 games and hadn’t lost a home game to the Clippers since Jan. 18, 2020. By the end of three quarters, the Clippers led by 24 points. Five minutes into the fourth, with the lead 31, both teams emptied their benches, allowing backup center Mason Plumlee his first minutes since injuring a knee Nov. 6.

George scored a team-high 24 points, Leonard added 19 points and nine rebounds, and Harden scored eight points with 13 rebounds. The Clippers took control with a 23-4 run in the second quarter; they sent fans streaming for the exits with a 25-9 run that started in the third quarter and ended in the fourth.

No one raises a banner in January. Yet reaching that many repetitions with 48 games still to play in the regular season marks a level of stability the Clippers have never enjoyed in Leonard and George’s previous four seasons. Continuity cannot guarantee a long postseason run, but the Clippers are living proof a lack of it will almost certainly doom one. Injuries turned the Clippers’ regular-season lineups into a revolving door and their ambitions of winning the franchise’s first NBA title increasingly Sisyphean.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, drives past New Orleans guard Jose Alvarado in the first half Thursday.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, drives past New Orleans guard Jose Alvarado in the first half Thursday.

(Tyler Kaufman / Associated Press)

“As a guy who’s been here that whole time and been a starter the whole time, it’s been very frustrating,” Zubac told The Times. “I thought a lot about my love for the basketball in those four years and I can really tell you, I can say I like this game a lot because I was tested a lot.

“… It just shows when we’re healthy, we’re a great team.”

Yet they have rarely been healthy, even their most-used lineups in previous seasons had never played even 20 games together.

  • 2019-20: 215 minutes of Patrick Beverley-George-Leonard-Mo Harkless-Ivica Zubac over 18 games (with the Clippers outscoring opponents by 45 points in those minutes)
  • 2020-21: 264 minutes of Beverley-George-Leonard-Nicolas Batum-Serge Ibaka over 19 games (+87)
  • 2021-22: 221 minutes Reggie Jackson-Amir Coffey-Batum-Marcus Morris-Zubac 221 in 18 games (-63)
  • 2022-23: 164 minutes of Jackson-George-Leonard-Morris-Zubac in 13 games (+16)
  • Six weeks after the change of starting lineup Nov. 17 that inserted Mann in place of Russell Westbrook and saw the team’s six-game losing streak end, the Clippers’ new starters had played 260 minutes together entering Friday, outscoring opponents by 90 points. There is no secret behind that success, Mann said, just the culmination of a talented roster having the opportunity to play and learn one another.

“It was a product of we needed those six games that we lost to figure out what we needed to be and I think that was the biggest thing, almost a blessing that happened to us because we figured out, OK, we can’t play this way or else we won’t be good,” Mann said. “We gotta play this way. And I’d rather that happened early than you just up and down all year trying to figure it out.”

Figuring it out meant Harden pulling Zubac aside after every shootaround for extra work on their pick-and-roll chemistry. It meant Leonard learning to act quicker in order to beat defenses before they could double team him. They still haven’t figured it out, players calling out their lacking transition defense and execution that still isn’t crisp.

“We’re so talented there’s just sometimes where we don’t execute but we still score,” Mann said. “Once we get that execution piece down to where we could almost do it with our eyes closed, then that’ll take us to that next level. And I kind of think that’s the level that Boston’s at right now. They’re just doing stuff out of habit with their eyes closed, almost.”

“The reason why we took a swing on someone like James is because we knew it would make us a better team,” George told The Times. “It didn’t look like it was going to be what it is now, but we were for sure optimistic, definitely going into it thinking that James was going to make us a better team.

“I’m just happy it all came together at this point and we were able to sustain the blows and not point fingers and not look at each other internally in a negative way, so I’m just happy we took the hits and came out of that. Again, that was the reason why we were vouching to bring James over.”

League-wide, only nine other lineups entered Friday having played as many minutes as the Clippers’ starters. Of that group, only lineups by Houston and Boston had allowed opponents a lower shooting percentage than the Clippers (44.2%), and only Denver and Boston had a higher net rating, which measures the difference in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions, than the Clippers’ plus-16.6.

As durability has become less of a concern — Leonard has played in 30 and George 32 of the team’s 34 games — the Clippers have shown an ability to exorcise other past demons. On Dec. 6, the Clippers snapped a losing streak against Denver that had stretched to eight games and nearly two years. Two days later, they won in Utah for the first time since 2017, a run of 11 consecutive losses.

Now, they’ve won in New Orleans for the first time since coach Tyronn Lue was still an assistant on Doc Rivers’ bench.

Asked if he has seen the Clippers play with more confidence since he became head coach in 2020, Lue said, “I don’t think so. We just got it figured out. A lot of sacrifice.”

Clippers players were well aware of their nearly four-year losing streak in New Orleans on Friday morning, with one jokingly referring to it as the “final boss” of broken streaks. It was part of a larger struggle against the Pelicans, with New Orleans winning 10 of the previous 12 matchups since the start of the 2020-21 season.

The final milestone is, of course, ending the team’s five-decade drought without an NBA Finals appearance. That is the real milestone the Clippers will be measured by. No one hangs a banner in January, but the Clippers are making noise.

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