Clippers respond to Norman Powell’s message with win over Mavericks

Los Angeles Clippers forward Norman Powell, left, dunks over Dallas Mavericks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in Los Angeles.  (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Clippers forward Norman Powell, left, dunks over Dallas Mavericks forward Tim Hardaway Jr. during the second half on Tuesday at Arena. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Last week, after a fifth straight Clippers loss, there was no team meeting held in the visitors’ locker room inside Minneapolis’ Target Center. There were no grand pronouncements between players.

But there was one voice that cut through the quiet of a losing streak.

Four years after reserve guard Norman Powell played with Kawhi Leonard on a championship team in Toronto, Powell saw “championship DNA” in the Clippers, too. Judging by the team’s comments throughout training camp, as talk of a title swirled, everyone had. But when it had yet to translate into any discernible consistency amid a 21-20 start Powell, frustrated by the losing, spoke up.

He wanted, he said days later, to remind the team what was still possible.

“I talked to the team, I told them like, ‘This team is deeper than the Raptors team I was on, it’s all about identity and who we are and how we’re going to play,’” Powell said. “I feel like every team goes through it, if you look back at championship teams and top teams there’s always a point in the season where you get here. And we’ve been here a couple times for whatever reason it is and it’s just, gutting up and taking it and coming out of it.”

Toronto’s 2019 championship team knew its identity early, based on years of the same core playing together, Powell said. The arrivals of Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol and the promotion of an assistant to head coach, Nick Nurse, enhanced but did not dramatically alter that foundation. And by winning 12 of their first 13 games, the Raptors endured little of the inconsistency the Clippers have worked through.

But every team hits its moment to decide who it will be, and the Raptors’ moment of clarity arrived after a 13-point January loss to Milwaukee on a national broadcast.

“A tipping point for the team and locking back in,” Powell said.

Being routed to Denver by 31 in a game so uncompetitive that coach Tyronn Lue benched his starters at halftime, then losing the next night by 13 against the scuffling Timberwolves – games in which the Clippers never led — felt like the Clippers’ own. But there had been talk before of urgency, with little consistency to show for it.

On Tuesday, two days after losing a double-digit fourth-quarter lead to Atlanta but believing they had witnessed a step forward in their process after a new starting lineup, and new rotations, led to a spike in energy and defensive intensity, the six -game losing streak ended against Dallas at Arena as a Clippers transformation began.

“There’s a tad more urgency,” forward Robert Covington said. “That’s one thing we preached upon was urgency tonight. Basically said the first team that throws the first punch is the team that’s going to come out and win. And that’s what we sat up there and did.”

Playing without Paul George (hamstring) and Luke Kennard (calf) yet again but utilizing the same reshuffled starting lineup and revamped bench lineups for a second consecutive game, the Clippers led by as many as 23 in a 113-101 win while looking like the kind of team Powell described hours earlier – no matter who is on the court, he said.

“The identity of who we are, every single night that we’re on the floor is the biggest thing that we have to figure out and that doesn’t matter who’s suiting up that night,” Powell said.

“It’s just, we’re going to be a hard-nosed, tough-playing defense. We’re going to be an offense that moves the ball, attacks you, puts pressure on the rim and generates open shots, stuff like that, and that’s not — PG doesn’t have to play for that, Kawhi doesn’t have to play for that, that’s just an identity and style of basketball we have to start really locking into now.”

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard shoots as Dallas Mavericks guard Frank Ntilikina.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, shoots as Dallas Mavericks guard Frank Ntilikina during the first half on Tuesday at Arena. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard scored 33 points with nine rebounds and the Clippers (22-21) committed only 10 turnovers.

With centers Ivica Zubac and Moses Brown each saddled with three first-half fouls, the Clippers locked into Mavericks star Luka Doncic, as he shot only three for nine in the first half, by utilizing the kind of all-wing lineups Lue couldn’t wait to test-drive in the preseason but had yet to fully embrace since.

“I think we have the personnel to do it,” Lue said of playing the kind of hard-nosed defense and attacking offense Powell had described. “I just think it’s having the right combinations and, getting everybody healthy so we can kind of see who plays well together and how we can build that, that chemistry you talking about on both sides of the basketball.”

This time, it was Dallas that never led. Even as Doncic cut the lead to eight in the final minutes, the Clippers kept coming, with a pair of three-pointers by Terance Mann, who replaced Reggie Jackson as starting point guard again and was a team-best plus-24 while scoring 12 points. Jackson had played eight minutes Sunday against Atlanta but was fully out of the rotation against Dallas.

Lue turned to Covington, the little-used forward, early to replace Zubac, and a lineup of all wings responded by outscoring the Mavericks by seven over their next six minutes in the first quarter. The Clippers won Covington’s season-high 31 minutes by 13 points.

“With our big wing lineup … I thought it was really good,” Lue said.

Leonard looked as physically dominating as he had all season, closer than ever to the 2021 version who dominated Dallas in key moments during the team’s first-round playoff series before injuring his knee weeks later. Leonard intercepted a cross-court pass. He smothered a Doncic drive in the second half, then drilled a three-pointer on the opposite end for a 77-55 lead.

The Clippers have a “lot of work to do,” Lue said, but by playing the right way, “we’re a tough team.”

Just as important was Powell, who scored 26 points on only 14 shots — his offseason emphasis on offensive efficiency paying dividends.

Powell stayed in until the very end, when it was no longer just one voice that could be heard in a locker room but the volume of thousands inside the arena seeing the Clippers flash their potential for one of their longest stretches this season.

“That’s the style,” Powell said afterward, “that we got to play every night.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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