Clippers extend win streak and strengthen unit with win over Mavs

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For long stretches Wednesday, the Clippers were not the NBA’s hottest team, but its most uncomfortable.

An illness had left their second-leading scorer, Paul George, at the team’s Dallas hotel, and their fourth-leading scorer, Norman Powell, suited up but feeling “terrible,” all the same.

Unable to score at the end of the second quarter, or hold onto the ball in the third, their 22-point first-half lead was gone early in the fourth quarter.

By playing a combination of guards and wings, Dallas forced the Clippers to match the adjustment for the fourth quarter’s final seven minutes — taking them away from their strongest, and preferred, lineups featuring either centers Ivica Zubac or Daniel Theis, and replacing it with the small-ball coach Tyronn Lue has studiously attempted to avoid.

In the fourth-quarter roar of the 20,310 inside American Airlines Center, you could hear the echoes from five weeks earlier, when the Clippers came to this same arena three games into James Harden’s tenure and saw their resolve, and double-digit lead, quickly give way when pushed.

Instead the Clippers ended Wednesday as they have every game in December — a winner.

By not just outlasting Dallas’ rally in a 120-111 victory but turning the final minutes into a clinic in how to close, led by a bravura performance by Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers improved to 17-10 behind their ninth consecutive victory, which ties Orlando for the NBA’s longest win streak this season.

“Huge win for us,” Lue said.

The Clippers are far from perfect, as their December record would suggest — each flaw a reminder of how quickly the streak could go away.

Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) looks to pass under pressure from Clippers Ivica Zubac (40) and Russell Westbrook (0) Wednesday in Dallas.

(LM Otero / Associated Press)

But their overall body of work since a Nov. 29 win in Sacramento that preceded the start of the streak, yet was hailed in the moment and in hindsight the “blueprint” for how they could play, has also revealed a team with better habits, better chemistry and a better sense of knowing “who we are,” said Harden after 17 points and 11 assists in 38 minutes. “We kind of have a sense of our identity.” And internally, the Clippers strongly believe that even when the streak eventually ends, that progress won’t.

Consider the superstar scoring run of the past month that Leonard continued by scoring a game-high 30 points, with 10 rebounds and five assists against Dallas. Ten of his points came in the fourth quarter, when Leonard did not allow the Clippers to finish meekly as they had when outscored 11-4 and 10-2 in the final minutes of the second and third quarters, respectively.

Starting with 3:59 to play, Leonard scored four times at the rim, getting wherever he wanted despite George, his co-star, not even being on the floor. Again Leonard logged heavy minutes, this time 37, and played stronger as the game wore on. All 16 points scored by the Clippers in the game’s final five minutes were either baskets scored or assisted by Leonard.

He got wherever he wanted, his four baskets in that span coming at the rim. Again Leonard logged heavy minutes, this time 37, and played stronger as the game wore on.

“A beast down the stretch,” Lue said.

His play was a reflection of key adjustments made over the past month, as coaches implored the team’s stars, including Leonard, to make faster decisions with the ball. Leonard beat double teams before they could trap him, including with 1:40 to play when he saw Derrick Jones Jr. taking a step away from his man, Harden, and toward Leonard, and Leonard spun past his defender and evaded a waiting Luka Doncic at the rim for a bucket that extended the lead to eight, the streak to nine and sent teammates mimicking his final two-step on the sideline.

The finish revealed how much more comfortable the Clippers are playing with one another since their last visit here. When Dallas sent two defenders at Harden beyond the three-point line late, he knew to quickly get rid of the ball to Mann at the free-throw line, who then surveyed the remaining three defenders and whipped the ball to the open option, including a lob to Leonard late in the fourth.

Asked what metric tells him the most about the Clippers’ transformation, Leonard pointed to their late-game defense. In November, that defense rated as one of the league’s worst late in close games. In December, the Clippers are now 5-0 in games within five points in the last five minutes because that defense has become one of the stingiest, allowing Dallas three points during Wednesday’s final 3:46. One team source described the difference as the roster learning to play with urgency.

“We know basketball isn’t just a one-game thing, especially when you’re acquiring pieces, acquiring a guy like [Harden], Hall of Fame, superstar player, a guy that can affect the game in a multitude of ways and it’s going to take time,” said Powell, who scored 21 points, with the Clippers outsourcing Dallas by 16 points in his 31 minutes. “It’s going to take time for them to find a rhythm, find a continuity, find a chemistry.

“It’s not summer league, summertime pickup basketball where you’re doing whatever you want. There’s a system in place and everybody got to figure out their role and how it goes and we’re doing that. The sacrifices from those guys, and figuring out how to give themselves up for the team to reach the end goal, we’re starting to figure that out. We’re starting to play cohesive togetherness basketball offensively and defensively.”

Powell looked sapped of energy afterward, his eyes droopy and a hoodie covering his head. Not feeling well enough to even attend that morning’s shootaround, he made all three of his shots while playing the entire fourth quarter. Not playing was never an option, he said.

“I got to have a broken leg where I can’t run or walk,” he told The Times. “You see me show up on that bus, I’m playing.”

But the news Wednesday was that Powell’s mental and physical toughness doesn’t appear to be the exception.

Russell Westbrook came off the bench and disrupted Doncic’s rhythm with his physical defense. Doncic finished with 28 points but scored only seven after halftime, while attempting 25 field goals to get his points.

“Ain’t too many people defending better than me at this position all around the league, honestly,” said Westbrook, who had 10 points.

The Clippers outscored Dallas (16-11) by 16 points in Westbrook and Harden’s 14 minutes together, a stretch that produced 69% shooting and 11 assists against just two turnovers. This after the duo had been so inefficient together that in recent weeks their minutes were at one point separated entirely.

Harden didn’t allow an 0-for-5 start from deep to rattle his willingness to shoot. He made two of the team’s three three-pointers in the final quarter. And the Clippers committed just two turnovers in the final quarter, as well.

“Adversity is the biggest character in my opinion,” Westbrook said. “It shows what type of team you want to be and we had some adversity initially and we didn’t waver. We stuck with it and made some adjustments, figured out where each of us could be beneficial to the team, for the betterment of the team, and I think we’re finding ways to figure that out.”

These were not the same Clippers who gave a game away here in November. On this night, they stole one back.

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