A day after they were undone by the greatest shooter in NBA history, the Clippers’ attempts to get back on track Monday were thwarted by an even more dangerous offensive weapon.
The New Orleans center made one three-pointer in his first five seasons before blooming into a capable, if not prolific, deep shooter amid the last half of his career but against the Clippers this season, and Monday in particular, he made Stephen Curry’s second-half show from one day earlier inside Staples Center look positively inefficient.
Less than two weeks after making a then-career high five three-pointers in a win over the Clippers, Valanciunas made his first seven three-pointers Monday to riddle the league’s second-ranked defense on his way to 39 points, 15 rebounds and a 123-104 Pelicans win.
He is the only player in NBA history to finish with at least seven three-pointers and seven offensive rebounds in the same game. In a 66-second stretch in the first half, Valanciunas made three three-pointers to induce groans inside the arena while pushing the Pelicans’ lead to 21.
It was a jarring finish to a first half that began with so much promise for the Clippers — just as this team began November with seven consecutive wins, only to finish it with six losses in its last nine games.
In those rocky two weeks, the Clippers (11-10) have averaged 18 fewer points per game than during their streak, while shooting eight percentage points worse.
Clippers star Paul George, who scored 27 points, cited the team’s attrition and lack of practice time for its recent lack of polish. The Clippers played without Nicolas Batum, who missed his fifth game while in the NBA’s coronavirus-related health and safety protocols, and Marcus Morris Sr., who was rested on the second night of a back-to-back in what coach Tyronn Lue called a precaution against playing him too many minutes too soon after returning from a balky knee.
But some of what George called their “kryptonite” continues to happen, despite a veteran-laden team full of returners from last season. They’ve been punished on the defensive glass and by their own turnovers.
“It’s not time to panic,” George said. “We know we’re not playing well but all of it is self-inflicted with our turnovers, starting with me. We clean that up, we give ourselves a chance.”
The Clippers scored on their first five possessions and the night’s most promising development was reserve center Serge Ibaka’s strongest performance since returning from the G League last week, as he made three of his first four three-pointers for 13 points. The Clippers shot 51% overall, their best shooting night since Nov. 13, and 38% from behind the three-point arc, but there were ominous signs when New Orleans (6-17) matched them shot for shot, making seven of their first eight field goals, and didn’t slow down behind Valanciunas’ offensive outburst.
"We were due for a bad defensive game,” Lue said.
The Clippers were outscored by 14 on second-chance points, by 16 in transition and by 34 in the paint while turning the ball over 15 times.
Entering Monday, a team had committed 20 or more turnovers in one game 43 times this season. The Clippers owned four of those performances; only Minnesota had more. Only the severely rebuilding Houston Rockets have turned the ball over more consistently than the Clippers in November.
“Offensively they had the right intent to move the basketball and play the right way,” Lue said. “We just couldn’t stop them.”
Reggie Jackson scored 19 after being held scoreless Sunday. The Clippers cut their deficit to nine at the end of the third, the first time they’d trailed by single digits since four minutes remained in the first quarter, only to see Pelicans reserve Garrett Temple sink a three-pointer at the third quarter’s buzzer. Clippers wing Terance Mann walked back to his huddle clutching his head, yelling an expletive.
On a free throw, jumper and three-pointer by George, the Clippers pulled within eight three times late, but a rally was never sustained. The game all but ended with four minutes to play on a most fitting play, when Eric Bledsoe carelessly threw an errant pass into his own backcourt. The turnover was scooped up by Valanciunas, who rumbled ahead for a dunk.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.