With a pair of second-quarter free throws Wednesday, Paul George became the 16th active NBA player with at least 15,000 career points.
But the real milestone — the one that alters the Clippers’ postseason potential, at least — was reached 10 minutes earlier when George checked in to begin the second quarter.
In a season that has been one, long waiting game for the Clippers’ trio of injured stars to return, Wednesday marked the moment two of the three were together for the first time, and if Norman Powell’s performance in his first game since Feb. 10 turned heads, his first minutes with George as teammates turned a 113-109 Clippers victory at Arena with otherwise little bearing on how a potential first-round series could look into one teeming with possibilities.
As Phoenix, playing on a second consecutive night, rested Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, the players most responsible for its NBA-best and franchise-record 63 victories, Powell made his first six baskets in his first action since fracturing a bone in his toe on Feb. 10, just three games after being acquired by the Clippers in a trade with Portland to become one of the team’s future cornerstones alongside George and Kawhi Leonard.
“Seeing him on the floor with PG and Reggie [Jackson] was encouraging,” coach Tyronn Lue said, adding that Powell looked as if he “didn’t miss a beat.”
Like George in his startingly efficient return from a 43-game absence one week earlier, Powell showed little rust in his own return, scoring 24 points on 10 shots, aided by nine-of-10 shooting at the free-throw line. He played 23 minutes, his workload capped. He scored 17 first-half points on a mix of catch-and-shoot three-pointers and curls to the rim after taking handoffs from center Isaiah Hartenstein that he finished with the kind of bounce that attracted the Clippers to his potential playing off of George and Leonard as a dangerous, and probably overqualified, third scoring option.
The film the Clippers probably will analyze most is that of the minutes he shared with George — who scored 19 points with nine rebounds before resting the fourth quarter — after the two hadn’t even played together during two previous practice days, as Lue said. Lue did say he hoped to put together a lineup of George, Powell, Nicolas Batum, Marcus Morris Sr. and Robert Covington but wasn’t able.
Two lineups featuring George and Powell outscored the Suns by 20 points in only six second-quarter minutes, bursting the lead open to 29 at halftime and as many as 39 in the second half before a woeful fourth quarter of execution brought the short-handed Suns to within two possessions of the lead amid a 48-point period. Lue put more stock into the way the Clippers built their lead than how they lost it.
“Playing off PG still doesn’t seem real to me,” Powell said. “He’s a guy I looked up to growing up, a guy we had some battles in Toronto in the playoffs and early on in my career he gave me some words of encouragement in my rookie year that stuck with me.
“To be here to play alongside with him and Kawhi when he’s back healthy it’s going to be fun.”
On their first possession together George brought the ball upcourt to start the offense. On the next trip, that duty went to Powell. The most telling play of their potential fit came three minutes into their first shift, after George’s knifing drive into the paint through two defenders drew a help defender at the rim, leaving Powell open in the corner for a wide-open three-pointer he sank for his fourth basket.
Still left up to the imagination is how those two would look with Leonard, who spent a second-quarter timeout laughing with assistant Dahntay Jones as the Clippers’ lead ballooned.
Leonard was seen shooting before practice Tuesday, bolstering speculation a postseason return is possible nine months after knee surgery even as the team has not offered an update on his status.
George said he wanted to play off of the ball to allow Powell more chances to handle the offense and gain rhythm.
“It’s starting to come together,” George said. “… I think the good thing about this group is we got a lot of experience and for the most part a pretty high-IQ team.
“You put us out there and we kind of plug and help. If somebody makes mistakes there’s somebody to cover for them. I think that’s a very underrated thing about this team.”
Lue said that Luke Kennard, who sat out because of a sore right hamstring, wasn’t expected to miss more than one game.
In 11 days, a different version of these teams could begin their second playoff series in as many years — a matchup the Clippers would enter with respect for the owners of the NBA’s best record but without fear, after their short-handed roster took the Suns to six games in June’s conference final and held tough in a February matchup despite missing George and Powell, among others. Second-seeded Memphis, conversely, has been one of the Clippers’ most difficult matchups all season.
“We could be dangerous come playoff, come play-in,” Lue said.
Hurdles remain before any playoff series is set. The Clippers could face any one of three potential opponents in their first play-in game — Denver, Utah or Minnesota — that will determine which team finishes in seventh. Phoenix is preparing for the four play-in tournament teams that could emerge as a first-round opponent.
“It’s not as terrible as you think,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We have coaches assigned to certain teams. … We’re studying it all the time. I’m not one to complain about that. I think when you get to this point and you’re in that position, you should be grateful because you’re on a good team. It’s not that much work. … Our guys will have everyone prepared and as you know after game one, maybe game two, everybody knows what you’re doing anyway.”
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