Clippers move up to fourth in West as questions arise about Russell Westbrook

PHOENIX — The Western Conference improved this first half of February.

The Dallas Mavericks signed Kyrie Irving, a player the LA Clippers were reportedly interested in, and the Phoenix Suns added Kevin Durant, who was introduced at the Footprint Center Thursday ahead of a visit by the Clippers to wrap up the pre-break. of the All-Star Game. of the regular season.

The Clippers made moves, but they didn’t acquire a star. They traded Luke Kennard and guards Reggie Jackson and John Wall, and acquired wing Eric Gordon, center Mason Plumlee and combo guard Bones Hyland. Ultimately, they entered the trade deadline with one open standard contract list spot and two traditional bases, and left the trade deadline with one open standard contract list spot and no traditional bases.

Interest for the Clippers’ hot point guard has migrated from Irving to Russell Westbrook, who was part of a three-team deal that sent him from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Utah Jazz before the deadline. The 34-year-old is currently on the Jazz’s inactive list. While a decision has yet to be made regarding Westbrook with Utah, the parties have met and had multiple productive discussions regarding his future as a member of the Jazz. He has also met with the Clippers.

As the athletic reported Thursday, LA received permission to speak with Westbrook and discussions began among franchise officials. At that meeting, the two sides communicated what Westbrook’s role might be. Westbrook will meet with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the near future as he continues to reflect on his options ahead of the March 1 playoff eligibility waiver deadline. George already went a step further before the Clippers’ meeting with Westbrook to publicly vouch for his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate.

Given the presence of Westbrook’s potential availability on the buyout market, as well as a challenging Clippers schedule that begins Tuesday with an eight-game skid against Western Conference teams at .500 or higher, the new acquisitions LA commercials were on location.

Gordon replaced Norman Powell as the sixth man in Phoenix, and his seven assists with no turnovers combined with 13 points (5-of-5 free throws, 2 3-pointers, including a 31-foot shot) stood out. Kennard never had a seven-assist game in his three seasons as a Clipper, while Powell hasn’t had a six-assist game in his eight-year NBA career. Only George has played more fourth-quarter minutes than Gordon this week, and Gordon has half of LA’s 14 fourth-quarter assists over the past two games. Gordon also showcased the defensive utility of him, not only guarding Devin Booker, but continuing to hone the cutting strip from him:

Plumlee isn’t looking for his shot too much, but he does give starting center Ivica Zubac some much-needed relief as a backup center. His first two games with the Clippers were the first time this season that he didn’t play 18 minutes in a game. But Plumlee has contributed six assists and just one turnover in just under 35 minutes. By comparison, Moses Brown (whose two-way contract has peaked at 50 games) has four assists and 14 turnovers in 288 minutes this season, while rookie Moussa Diabaté has three assists and nine turnovers in 171 minutes this season. . Plumlee has also shown a willingness to play hard and rush defensively.

“We’re short a guy to get in, sub Zu out,” Leonard said Thursday. “Now it gives Zu a chance to rest a bit instead of playing those big minutes. He can be more efficient in the minutes that he is playing. Mason is a veteran, he’s been in this league for a while and he’s nice to have.”

Hyland has to make the biggest adjustment as a player that would be a third item if the Clippers added another rotation player. But in 32 minutes, Hyland has shown that he can shoot and score, willing to put the ball up the court and make plays for himself and his teammates at a high pace. And while his steals haven’t yet resulted in points, Hyland has also shown how he can help the Clippers defensively with his attack point disruption:

For what it’s worth, the new Clippers have already impressed George.

“Yeah, I think our chemistry has been great,” George said after the game against Phoenix. “I think the new guys came right into it, and they’re flowing into our offense. You know, they’re making the game easier for everyone. And they are: EG and Mason are veterans, and Bones has that youthful flow, that youthful game that we need. Those three guys just hook up. It’s like they started the season with us. It’s just been easy to flow with those guys.”

Tuesday’s 134-124 win over the Warriors with a full roster was a step in the right direction. The Clippers had the (rare) benefit of facing a short-played Warriors team that was missing Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins at home after three days off travel. But the way the Clippers beat Phoenix 116-107 on Thursday gave LA the momentum it craved heading into the All-Star break.

While the Suns were without Durant, the Clippers were without Norman Powell (treatment for a right knee injury for the first time this season) or any points from Kawhi Leonard until five minutes left in the third quarter. Leonard scored 16 points in the final 17 minutes Thursday to go with his career-tying seven 3-pointers Tuesday against the Warriors. George had consecutive 20-point games. Terance Mann was 17 of 24 from the field against the Suns and Warriors, bringing a level of energy and talent that is becoming indispensable. And the new trio of second unit artists from Los Angeles have made a positive impact.

“We have everything we need,” George said. “We have plays, we have scorers. We have defensive plugs. We just had to put all of that together and find an identity as a group that would carry us through the games. Because again, it’s going to be long, we plan to have a long postseason. So we have to have an identity to get us through that long stretch.”

The most important thing is that they are winning games. The Clippers went 23-24 last month, but have been 10-4 since. No team has been better offensively in that stretch (121.8 points per 100 possessions), while the defense is surviving a stretch in which teams are shooting a league-high 32.3 percent of 3 against them in the last 14 games.

The only team in the West with a better record since Jan. 19 is the Suns, who got a much-needed win by the Clippers to take over the fourth seed before halftime. When the Clippers return, they will host the Sacramento Kings. While the Clippers have the fewest total games (21) and road games (8) remaining, the Kings have the most total games (25) and the second-most road games (13). ) remaining. The Clippers finished with the four worst teams in the NBA, having gone 10-0 against the Rockets, Hornets, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs. They also finished the Eastern Conference road games and played their best basketball.

Still, Leonard isn’t satisfied.

“As I’ve been saying, we’re still trying to get better,” Leonard said Thursday. “I don’t think we’re playing at a championship level yet, but you know, we’re gradually getting better and we’ve got to keep getting better.”

(Photo by Kawhi Leonard and Eric Gordon: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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