Nicolas Batum, Clippers heat up to bury Bulls
LOS ANGELES — With Paul George sidelined, the Clippers need other players to step up. The team cannot afford to be Kawhi-centric, waiting for their other star to pull them through.
Two games ago, it was guards Terance Mann and Bone Hyland who filled the void left by George, who is out for the remainder of the regular season. This time, it was Eric Gordon and Nicolas Batum.
While Leonard struggled to get free against the Chicago Bulls’ fifth-rated defense, Gordon and Batum came up big, combining for 46 points in a 124-112 victory on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena.
Batum, starting in place of an ailing Marcus Morris Sr., scored all of his season-high 24 points on 3-pointers. Gordon added 22 points, going 5 for 9 from long range, in his highest-scoring game since returning to the Clippers in a trade last month.
“You know, when you’re missing a guy like PG and Norm (Powell) and Mook – three guys who can really score the ball, we have to find a way to score the basketball, and it was by sharing the ball,” Batum said. “We can’t just really rely on Kawhi to take us home every game for 48 minutes. We kind of did that last game. He was pretty tired, and it didn’t work.”
But it wasn’t just those two who helped the Clippers (40-36) hold onto the fifth spot in the jam-packed Western Conference standings. Leonard finally shook free of the Bulls’ double-teams to score 22 points, grab seven rebounds and dish out six assists.
He had just seven points in the first half.
“He just took his time,” Coach Tyronn Lue said. “We knew they were going to double-team him on the post-ups, they always do, and so just taking his time and making the right play and not forcing anything.
“When you have a great player that takes his time and plays at his own pace, and never gets sped up and just takes what the defense gives him, I thought he did a good job with that and that allowed us to shoot the ball so well and get 40 threes up and make 20 of them because of his pace and his poise and taking on the double team and making the right pass.”
Russell Westbrook added 12 points and had 10 assists, while Hyland had 13 points and eight assists on a night when the Clippers had 41 assists on their 48 field goals and coasted across the finish line.
The Clippers pushed the pace, scoring in transition to pull away in the third quarter and open a 22-point lead. At one point, after Batum landed a season-high eighth 3-pointer with 2:25 remaining, Leonard found him for a quick dap as they ran down the court. The help appeared to be welcomed.
“It’s great,” Leonard said of how the others contributed. “They set the tone early tonight offensively, making shots. This is what we are going to have to do with PG being out and yeah, it just opens up the floor.”
When healthy, Leonard has been one of the team’s most productive players. He’s been averaging 23.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 51.2% from the field. But he can’t do it all on a nightly basis.
Leonard will get more help when Norman Powell returns during the upcoming three-game road trip that begins Wednesday in Memphis. Powell has missed 11 games because of a shoulder subluxation.
The Bulls, who defeated the Lakers on Sunday afternoon couldn’t garner any sort of momentum. They led briefly in the first half but struggled to slow the Clippers. They turned the ball over 14 times for 20 points and made just 9 of 23 3-point attempts.
Zach Lavine led the Bulls with 23 points, DeMar DeRozan added 21 points and seven assists and Nikola Vucevic had 20 points and eight rebounds.
Lue, in somewhat of a joking manner, admitted he should change his tune during his pregame talks.
“Maybe I should if we keep making the same mistakes and you don’t do what we’ve been working on the last three years,” he said. “Maybe I should change my tactic. I’m going to work on that.”
Maybe his words finally sunk in.
The Clippers avoided giving up a huge run by the Bulls to start the game. In their past three games, the Clippers have fallen behind by sometimes double-digit leads and struggled to overcome the deficit. Against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday, they never recovered.
“I think playing at home and getting off to better starts is our main focus. It’s got to start on the defensive end of getting stops early,” Lue said before tip-off. “We can’t keep starting the games 8-0, 10-2, 14-2; we got to do a better job of starting games. Hopefully, that starts tonight.”
The Clippers stayed with the Bulls in the early going, never letting them get ahead by more than five points for the first 15 minutes.
The Clippers started to take control of the game late in the first half, building a 10-point lead before Nikola Vucevic buried a 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds to cut into the lead 62-55.
The Clippers improved to 2-1 without George, who is expected to miss the rest of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs after spraining his right knee in a loss to Oklahoma City last Tuesday.
“That’s the way that we have to play without PG especially, but until he comes back got to find a way to really get everybody involved and play good basketball,” Batum said.