So often this season, coach Tyronn Lue has described his Clippers roster as too quiet. But as Tuesday night’s second half wore on inside Staples Center, their agitation transformed to anger.
Thwacked on a shot but not awarded a foul, Clippers star Paul George was upset enough, on a night when he didn’t attempt a free throw until the third quarter and was harassed most effectively by the defense of Portland’s Norman Powell, that he didn’t jog back on defense. Bumped at the rim without a foul to show for it, Terance Mann waited until the next break in play to approach referee Tyler Ford and lean in while holding out both hands, pleading.
They aren’t alone in their frustrations. After an offseason shift in how fouls are whistled, teams are shooting two fewer free throws per game than last season, the first time the average has dipped under 20 a night in NBA history. But understanding the depth of the Clippers’ ire required watching Nicolas Batum, one of the NBA’s most mild-mannered players. He glared when a call went against Clippers center Isaiah Hartenstein late in the third quarter. Later, he forcefully tapped his right elbow after drawing contact, but not a foul, on a three-pointer.
As the complaints piled up, the Clippers’ emotional state appeared as fragile as their single-digit lead. George went to the bench with his fourth foul with five minutes to play in the third quarter. Guard Reggie Jackson, their other most dependable scorer, followed a minute later.
But this would not be the night the Clippers’ winning streak ended. Kept afloat to end the third quarter by the composure of their reserves and in front until the end by their execution, as Portland’s own faltered, the Clippers won their fifth consecutive game, 117-109.
“In timeouts just wanted to keep our poise,” Lue said. “Both ways they were letting us play physical, so if they can do it to us, we can do it to them, as well.
“I don’t think it was one-sided. We just got to play through the officiating. We can’t get mad.”
The Clippers took 19 free throws and Portland 12. George scored 24 points on 24 shots and drew a whistle on his last, then enjoyed a small catharsis.
Backing down Powell with 1 minute 22 seconds remaining and the Clippers leading by eight, George made a spinning jump shot and heard the whistle’s chirp before he landed, pounding his chest with one hand before making the ensuing free throw. He added nine rebounds and seven assists.
“M-V-P” cheers followed to bookend a game in which Trail Blazers coach Chauncey Billups, a Clippers assistant last season, described George as playing at the level of a most-valuable-player candidate. He’d helped the Clippers reel off 10 unanswered points in the third quarter before drawing the fourth foul that sent him to the bench, reluctantly.
“When PG got his fourth foul, he had to check out. The first two, three possession, we didn’t play well and we kind of were lost,” Batum said. “We have to find a way to move the ball again.”
To do that, Lue inserted Hartenstein in place of starter Ivica Zubac because of his chemistry and passing with fellow reserves Luke Kennard and Mann. Portland trailed by five but could trim that deficit to just four by the fourth quarter’s start.
With Serge Ibaka’s minutes limited, Lue still has room for three centers in his rotation, with Lue saying that Ibaka and Hartenstein’s first-half play would determine who played more in the second half. Ibaka lasted five minutes, all in the first half, before Hartenstein scored 14 points in 17 minutes.
“We just play simple and move around and we started to get good shots and big threes,” Batum said. “That was a big stretch for us before PG came back into the game.”
The Clippers (6-4) have staked their identity on their defense, and it, saved them in crucial moments after a back-and-forth first half in which the Clippers opened on a 13-3 run, allowed 10 unanswered points by Portland, then regained control by finishing the first quarter on a 13-0 run.
Portland guard Damian Lillard made 11 of 23 shots for 27 points and helped Trail Blazers starters make 12 of their 18 shots in the final quarter, including a three-pointer by Jusuf Nurkic with 3:39 to play to pull Portland within 103-100. But the Trail Blazers didn’t score again for more than two minutes.
By that point the Clippers’ lead had grown to nine and all those grimaces from a quarter earlier had become the grins of a team that hasn’t lost since Oct. 29.
Batum scored 22 points with six three-pointers against his old team and has made 59% of his three-pointers in his last five games. Reggie Jackson added 23 points.
“That’s just been our M.O.” George said. “So many guys step up when we need them, and I think T-Lue said it best. You never know on a given night who it’s going to be.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.