Clippers lean on defense to snap losing streak, beat Hornets

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard was absent again Tuesday, though coach Tyronn Lue said his “day-to-day” recovery from a hip contusion had made progress.

Yet the Clippers are looking for progress in something else that has been missing for the last three games too — their defense.

Some things seem to rarely change: The Clippers’ 113-104 victory against Charlotte at Arena was their 14th consecutive against the Hornets at home, dating to 2009. It improved Los Angeles to 18-12, and 1-2 when playing without Leonard .

Other things have shifted much more recently. In recent weeks, as the Clippers’ defense crept into the NBA’s upper ranks while keeping the team afloat during a rocky November, multiple veterans noted that the foundation of a strong defense is not anchored by one defender even the caliber of Leonard, whom Lue has compared to a shutdown cornerback, but rather focus on the game plan and effort executing it from five interconnected teammates — which was why sustaining a strong defense could prove so difficult over 82 games.

Clippers guard Russell Westbrook reacts after a block against the Charlotte Hornets at Arena Tuesday.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Then again, the defensive drop-off in consecutive pre-Christmas losses to Oklahoma City and Boston was too connected to be entirely coincidental, considering the Clippers’ defense gives up 13 fewer points per 100 possessions when Leonard plays versus when he sits this season. Those opponents shot a combined 55%, including 47% on three-pointers and 72% at the rim.

“We didn’t do a good job defensively the last couple of games,” Lue acknowledged before tipoff Tuesday.

“It’s really just our mentality, our mind-set, just coming into the game knowing that we want to start the game every night with a defensive mentality,” Lue later added. “And the last couple of games, we haven’t done that. We haven’t been physical, we haven’t been rebounding the basketball, we haven’t been into bodies, guys being able to roam around the court freely. “

Then he watched a first half during which 22 of Charlotte’s 23 field goals before halftime were made inside the paint. Through three quarters, the Clippers also had 12 turnovers — matching their per-game average during their nine-game win streak to start the month, when the team was at its sharpest. That was not the case against the 7-21 Hornets, even though they’d played without two of their best offensive threats in LaMelo Ball and rookie Brandon Miller.

James Harden helped the Clippers reach their largest lead of 10 in the first half on his fifth three-pointer of the half. He had 20 of his team-high 28 points before halftime, in one of most aggressive performances since joining the team last month. Paul George became the second Clipper in double digits in the third quarter and he finished with 25.

The Clippers led by 10 again late in the third quarter, but never put the game away and trailed 91-84 within the first two minutes of the fourth quarter as Lue took a timeout.

Then arrived the defensive stand they needed. From the time Charlotte took a six-point lead with 8:19 to play in the fourth quarter, it didn’t score again for the next four-plus minutes. By the time Nick Richards made free throws with 3:52 to play to end Charlotte’s scoreless streak, the Clippers led by eight after a layup and three-pointer by Russell Westbrook, followed by a Westbrook assist leading to a dunk by Ivica Zubac.

Charlotte shot just eight for 23 in the fourth quarter, including just five for 11 inside the paint.

Westbrook scored 14, with 11 rebounds and six assists off the bench. Harden added eight assists, which led to 22 points from his teammates, and six rebounds, and the Clippers outscored Charlotte by 20 points in his team-high 40 minutes. Zubac was again one of the most dependable Clippers, finishing with 18 points and 14 rebounds.

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