By Andrew Greif
Clippers guard Paul George holds the ball as Ivica Zubac sets a screen on Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard during the second half on Tuesday at Staples Center. George scored 22 points in the first quarter and finished with 36. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
Having had barely 24 hours to evaluate DeMarcus Cousins since he signed a 10-day contract Monday afternoon, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue wasn’t sure what to expect from the veteran center’s level of conditioning entering Tuesday’ against Portland.
What he was already sure of was that despite not playing since mid-February, Cousins was healthy.
Cousins looked it in the second quarter when, one minute into his seven-minute debut, he outhustled Portland to an offensive rebound and put back the layup for his first Clippers points. The Clippers, having made their first nine shots and 14 of their first 15, had cruised to a 26-point lead en route to a 133-116 victory at Staples Center.
Two days into his stay, barely knowing the team’s plays, Cousins finished with seven points and four rebounds. Yet to get the win, the Clippers had to fend off a comeback after their lead was trimmed to two in the third quarter.
With Kawhi Leonard scoring 29 points and grabbing 12 rebounds and Paul George scoring 36, the Clippers improved to 19-1 when scoring at least 120 points. Takeaways from their eighth victory in their last 10 games:
Lillard shut down
Lue promised before tipoff to send two defenders to trap Trail Blazers All-Star Damian Lillard whenever possible, and the Clippers were able to hold Lillard out of rhythm. He made just two of 14 shots — his fewest attempts since Feb. 1.
Lillard’s primary defender during the first quarter had something to do with his one-for-five start. Patrick Beverley, making his first appearance since a right knee injury sidelined him March 11, got the start and played like a man trying to make up for lost time. After making his first shot, a three-pointer, he stole a pass from Robert Covington and drilled his second three. Acting as a one-man press, he also denied Lillard from catching inbounds passes.
“Just his defense, just his energy, the way he plays and competes every night, we definitely missed that,” Lue said on a videoconference.
Beverley’s right knee has sidelined him for 20 games this season but he described himself as “feeling good, feeling healthy, feeling strong, feeling confident.”
Norman Powell and C.J. McCollum combined for 56 points, but Portland’s rally was sunk when Lillard couldn’t act as the closer.
With Beverley’s minutes capped, Reggie Jackson, who had started in Beverley’s place, scored 23 points in 25 minutes off the bench and was critical once Portland trimmed the deficit to two with five minutes to play in the third quarter. Jackson answered with a three-pointer and scored eight points in the quarter. He added eight more in the fourth, his layup with less than seven minutes to play in the fourth widening that lead to 18 as the capper to a 13-2 Clippers run.
“That is what we need from Reggie,” Lue said. “We talked about it yesterday when we made the decision to start Pat Beverley: Reggie coming in and being more of a scorer off the bench and helping our offense. Tonight, he did a great job.”
Rotation in progress
With the Clippers trying to speed along Rajon Rondo’s acclimation, Beverley back and Jackson’s strong play, the odd men out Tuesday were Terance Mann, whose 10 minutes were his fewest since Feb. 3, and Luke Kennard, who didn’t get off the bench until the final six minutes when the game was in hand.
“We have a plan” to find the best lineups for Rondo, Lue said, “and just trying to see what it looks like and if it doesn’t work, then we got 20 games to adjust and make it right. So the biggest thing is just trying to get everyone acclimated to one another and get our rotations down and see who fits with who.”
Even with Cousins on the roster, his college teammate Patrick Patterson still earned the lion’s share of backup center minutes.
George on the good foot
The bone edema in George’s right foot appeared to cause the All-Star discomfort in recent games, with signs of hesitancy in situations where George, during the season’s first two months, might have used his athleticism to explode to the basket. There were no signs it troubled him against Portland, however, as he scored 22 points in the first quarter. Most encouraging for George, who has struggled to draw fouls, were the eight free throws he attempted.