Clippers notes: Kyrie Irving trade talk, Paul George’s appreciation and more from the road

The LA Clippers are finally back home Wednesday after a grueling six-game Grammy trip, their longest road swing of the season. One could break up the trip in three parts: the two comeback wins (versus the Hawks and Bulls), the two losses (versus the Cavaliers and Bucks) and the two near-collapses (versus the Knicks and Nets).

Progress was made on this trip, and overall, the Clippers have won eight of their last 10 games.

“We’re resilient,” head coach Tyronn Lue said after Monday’s win in Brooklyn put the Clippers at 31-26, fourth in the West. “A poised, veteran team. When our two guys are healthy, we’re a totally different team, and we know that.”

Since Jan. 19, the Clippers have the best offense in the NBA (123.5 points per 100 possessions) and third-best net rating (8.1, behind only the two teams they lost to on this trip: Cleveland and Milwaukee). It helps to have Paul George and Kawhi Leonard playing together in nine of the last 10 games.

The Clippers had to brave some bad Midwestern weather on this trip, but the trade winds were also blowing. The taste of Kyrie Irving increased in prominence over the last week, with the All-Star starter demanding a trade from the Brooklyn Nets on Friday. The Clippers didn’t face Irving in Brooklyn because he was dealt to Dallas, which just so happens to be the Clippers’ opponent Wednesday night.

“Don’t make me think about it right now, please; we play them Wednesday,” Lue said when asked Monday about Irving teaming up with longtime Clippers nemesis Luka Dončić. “I don’t want to think about that already. It’s going to be a tough challenge. Kyrie’s a guy we’ve always blitzed in the past, Luka’s always a guy we’ve blitzed in the past, and now they’ve got two of them.”

Lue won’t have to worry about Dončić this time, as he has been ruled out for Wednesday’s game. But Lue certainly considered having Irving on the Clippers, with LA making a strong offer to Brooklyn.

With the Clippers now finished with Eastern Conference road games this season (barring the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance), here are more scenes, notes and observations from this concluded stretch away from LA

Paul George

After the Clippers faced the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 31, I asked George (and Leonard) if he was concerned about making an All-Star appearance. “I don’t put too much into it,” he said, before sharing that he was fine taking a vacation instead of a trip to Utah.

The next night, as the Clippers were traveling to Fiserv Forum to play the Milwaukee Bucks, George was named an All-Star for the eighth time.

Considering all George has been through with bouncing back from serious injuries over the course of his 13-year career, he expressed appreciation for the opportunity to make it back to the All-Star Game — this time, as the sole representative of the Clippers.

“It’s an honor,” George said. “As much as it’s an individual node, it’s a team node. For us staying in the fight, staying in the hunt. Being in the middle of the pack. And me being a product of what we’ve been putting together as a group. But again, appreciation of the support around the world. The fans, the media, the coaches, my peers. Yeah, just appreciative and honored of an opportunity to represent in Salt Lake.”

Kawhi Leonard

Leonard was LA’s best player on this trip. He averaged 28.2 points, 6.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists (1.4 turnovers), 2.4 steals, 1.0 blocks and 2.6 3s on 44.5/44.8/93.8 percent shooting.

Mann seemed to confirm his inclusion in the Clippers’ offer to the Nets for Irving, pinching his fingertip and thumb on the way out after the game on the way out as if to say, “This close.”

Wall traveled on this entire trip and played in some “stay-ready group” games but did not play due to abdominal soreness following his Jan. 13 injury. Wall did acknowledge that three-guard lineups without Ivica Zubac made tough things on the Clippers — a scenario that makes his return to play with the Clippers cloudy, especially given LA’s pursuit of a guard like Irving.

“I think it’s hard when you’re playing three small guards and you don’t have a real center,” Wall said prior to shootaround in Milwaukee. “It’s going to be kind of tough. But if you have three wings and they’re all 6-foot-8 or taller, with two guards that are 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4, it kind of makes it a little more different and a better opportunity. ”

Morris returned in Milwaukee after missing four games from a rib contusion that he suffered against the Los Angeles Lakers. He told The Athletic that the Clippers playing so well enabled him to not have to rush back from injury. Morris ended the team’s road trip by getting ejected in the first half Monday against the Nets.

Ivica Zubac

Zubac had a pivotal role in all of the wins, but he had a rough night trying to contain Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. Afterward, Zubac was exasperated trying to explain the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo without fouling. (It’s worth noting the Bucks are the first team on LA’s post-trade deadline schedule.)

“It’s hard, especially (when) you’re put in that spot of, he’s coming at you downhill full speed, he’s a strong dude and you can’t move laterally,” Zubac said after fouling out and absorbing the majority of Antetokounmpo’s 54 points. “I take a step right, foul. I take a step left, foul. I don’t even know what’s a foul anymore. It’s hard being put in that spot. But you got to be physical, you got to shrink the floor, which I think we did a really good job in the first half. But in the second half, we kind of went away from that, hugging up on the shooters a little bit. Yeah, you’ve got to shrink the floor and back up and brace for contact.”

The Clippers are 6-2 when Powell comes off the bench this season to outscore an entire opponent’s reserves by himself. Three of those occurrences came on this six-game road trip: Powell outscored Chicago’s bench 27-20, Milwaukee’s bench 26-22 and Brooklyn’s bench 14-10. Powell also arguably had the best dunk of his career when he sat All-Star Julius Randle down in New York. But Powell still thinks he has better ones, namely his 2017 dunks on Anthony Davis in Toronto.

“No one had dunked on AD before,” Powell told The Athletic in Brooklyn.

The Clippers’ loss in Milwaukee was Batum’s eighth scoreless game of the season; he was a season-worst minus-24 in his minutes of him. Prior to the New York game two nights later, Batum told The Athletic that the Bucks’ loss was his worst game as a Clipper. Batum made up for it immediately with a buzzer-beating 3 to force overtime in New York, easily the biggest shot of the trip. His strong defense by him on Jalen Brunson helped secure the win in overtime. For good measure, Batum added a baseline out of bounds dagger and-1 in Brooklyn to put the game out of reach.

“That shot the other night, we really needed that, because it was like Milwaukee all over again,” Lue said of Batum’s clutch 3. “I love Nico. One of my favorite players of all time on my team. It was great to see.”

Lue’s insistence on having a traditional point guard in the rotation has given Jackson, the closest healthy veteran player who fits that description, a revitalization in LA’s rotation. Jackson had a positive fourth-quarter impact in Atlanta and Chicago, and he ended the road trip by helping the Clippers turn an eight-point deficit into an eight-point win in the last 6:19 in Brooklyn.

Covington missed the first two games of the trip on personal leave before joining the team in Chicago. But Covington was out of the rotation after the first half in Milwaukee, with an Antetokounmpo blow-by baseline dunk leading to an immediate sub. It’s the first time Covington has been out of the rotation in consecutive games since the end of December.

“Whenever we call his number, he’s a veteran player, he’s ready to go,” Lue said before Covington’s DNP-CD in Brooklyn. “But just seeing how our second unit defense has been struggling, I think we’ve been doing just — doing a better job getting Zu back in with that second unit to have some defense, some rim protection. So that’s kind of the way I’ve been going. Every game is different for me. So you can’t ask the questions every day about who’s playing, who’s not playing. I don’t coach like that. So I coach on feel. Who has it going, who is playing well, and then we’ll go with that.”

Covington has been traded four times since 2018, and he seemed to be bracing for a potential move by the end of the night at Barclays Center.

Kennard started two games, came off the bench for two games and was a DNP-CD for two games on this trip. As forecast, Kennard was the sacrificial lamb for Lue canceling three-guard lineups. Like Covington, Kennard’s role has been all over the place, with his absences not helping to establish consistency. Unlike Covington, Lue found some minutes for Kennard in Brooklyn, even though Kennard’s brutal shooting slump that began in his home state of Ohio continued (2-of-16 field goals, 1-of-11 3s last three games).

“I wanted to get him on the floor because I love when he’s on the floor,” Lue said Monday. “And then also as a product, just making sure this last game we got to get PG and Kawhi’s minutes down. And so you know, playing nine, 10 guys if we have to just to make sure we’re being smart about their their situation.”

This quintet only played in Cleveland, with the exception of Diabaté’s final chance at rotation minutes in Atlanta (they did not go well, as Diabaté recorded no statistics in just under five first half minutes against the Hawks).

The Cleveland game wasn’t competitive, but it was notable for all five: Preston was back in his college state; Boston scored 20 fourth-quarter points; Coffey got a rare start; Diabaté made his first career 3; and Brown has only two games left on his two-way contract.

(Top photo of Kawhi Leonard and Norman Powell: Quinn Harris / Getty Images)


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