LOS ANGELES — Two teams trending in opposite directions crossed paths Sunday at Staples Center, mixed it up and then continued on their separate ways.
With a late-fourth-quarter surge Sunday, the Clippers won 120-106, for their fourth consecutive win. On the other end, the Charlotte Hornets lost their fourth in a row.
“We’re getting rhythm,” said Paul George, contrasting the past week with the Clippers’ 1-4 start. “We’re making shots. Guys are finding their shots and shooting their shots and the ball is going in… We’e been pretty good defensively, but just offensively is where we struggled to start the year so I think that’s the biggest improvement. We got our legs, I feel like, and guys know what shots they’re going to get up to this point. That’s it. We’ve just been confident shooting our shots.”
L.A. (5-4) was down 99-91 with 7:33 to play Sunday when Coach Tyronn Lue took a timeout. Then the Clippers did it again: One game after turning a 20-point deficit into a 20-point victory, the Clippers flipped the script again — taking off on a 22-0 run en route to outscoring Charlotte 29-7 down the stretch.
“Ever since last year, we made a lot of good comebacks and we know it’s never over,” said Clippers center Ivica Zubac, who played 10 minutes in the fourth quarter, pulling down six of his 11 rebounds and four of his 14 points in the final period.
“But at the same time we gotta be better starting the games because going down 15, 20 is hard, it takes a lot of energy and we don’t want to try to get out of the hole every game,” added Zubac, grinning after notching his second consecutive productive outing. “We got some room to improve there and when we do that it’s gonna be a little easier to win games.”
Clippers Coach Tyronn Lue credited his team’s timely, stubborn defending for the final turnabout.
“Our defense really picked up,” Lue said. “Our physicality, our attention to detail was a lot better, I thought our focus in the first … was pretty bad, we made a lot of mistakes and a lot of game plan mistakes, but I thought in that fourth quarter, we did a good job of locking into what we wanted to do.”
The NBA’s highest-scoring, most porous team — coming in, Charlotte ranked first in both points scored (114.2) and points allowed (117.4) — the Hornets dumped 39 points on their hosts and built a short-lived 13-point lead in the first quarter.
But the Clippers chased them down, slowed them down and took back the lead with 6:51 to play in the second quarter on a stepback jumper from Paul George (20 points on 9-for-22 shooting) that put L.A. ahead 45-44 lead with 6:51 to play in the second quarter.
The teams played hot potato with the lead — the game featured 19 lead changes — until Charlotte (5-6) used a 12-2 run to take the 99-91 lead.
The Clippers’ retort: a 13-3 spurt (to which Reggie Jackson contributed eight of his 19 points) to yank back the lead, 104-102.
Then Terance Mann (17 points) went gliding through the lane for a grown-man jam with 4:35 left that padded the advantage and energized an already engaged crowd of 15,781.
No one scored again until George’s jumper with 2:34 left on the clock made it 108-102. A pair of three throws from Jackson (19 points) and another jumper from George pushed the advantage to double digits, 112-102, with 1:39 left on the clock.
And then Luke Kennard (18 points) hit the 3-pointer that sent folks streaming to the exits, the Clippers suddenly, comfortably ahead by 13. Those who stuck around saw Kennard his another 3-pointer — his sixth — moments later to push the lead to 118-104.
Chino Hills’ LaMelo Ball returned to Southern California having claimed last season’s Rookie of the Year mantle.
The last time Ball and the Hornets met the Clippers in L.A. on March 20, the then-rookie sensation suffered a fractured right wrist that sidelined him for the remainder of the season. This time he finished with 21 points and seven assists; he had 17 points and three fouls in 14 minutes before halftime.
Serge Ibaka made his season debut for the Clippers after recovering from back surgery in June. He played eight minutes, went 0 for 3, had a rebound, an assist, a block and five fouls.
“I want to thank Coach for giving me a couple minutes tonight,” Ibaka said. “It was a bit rough, but he put me back again so I’m gonna working, I always do, and it’s gonna come.”
Said Lue: “When you come back from an injury like that and you’ve been out for a while, the game does seem fast. So it was just good to see him back on the floor.”
With his 20 points Sunday, George eclipsing 14,500 for his career, joining LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul in an exclusive club of active players who have at least 14,500 points, 4,500 rebounds and 2,500 assists.
The Clippers’ star shot 9 for 22 though just 2 for 10 from deep, and he also recorded nine rebounds, eight assists. He also had eight of the Clippers’ 20 turnovers — which Charlotte converted into 30 points.
That’s been a trend in the Clippers’ past three games — in their two wins in Minnesota, they gave it away a combined 38 times and the Timberwolves scored 52 points off of those turnovers.
Against his former team, Nicolas Batum gave the Clippers 16 points on 6-for-11 shooting, including hitting four of his nine 3-point attempts.