Very few games offer as clear a view of colliding worlds as the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder did at the Crypto.com Arena on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, Paul George’s hyperextended knee put a damper on the evening. Midway through the third quarter, we witnessed the brilliance of George on display as he caught his defender sleeping with a shifty fake outside, then knifed into the paint, reeled in a bounce pass from Mason Plumlee, and then executed a smooth 360 dunk.
Late in the fourth quarter, George was being helped off the floor and carted from the arena after hyperextending his right knee. Ironically, the Clippers have been the most aggressive helicopter parents of the NBA. Their training staff has spent the entire season trying to control fate through load management. Sitting Kawhi Leonard on back-to-backs and resting George as a healthy DNP through injury management protocols, the tragedy of load management is that wear and tear aren’t the only causes of calamitous injuries.
Fittingly, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the former Clipper Sam Presti obtained in exchange for Paul George, who finished off L.A. Gilgeous-Alexander led the way for Oklahoma City by logging 31 points on 12-of-25 shooting. His 40th 30-point game of the season put him in the exclusive company of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the only Thunder players ever to accomplish that feat. SGA also joins Joel Embiid and Luka Dončić as the only players leaguewide to put up 40-plus games of 30 or more points this year.
A former Clipper point guard rising into the superstar class, while Los Angeles rummaged through the bottom of the league’s drawers for a point guard, underscores the virtue of patience that the Clippers eschewed when they gutted their team culture in the summer of 2019 by going all in on Leonard and George.
We witnessed a more melodramatic, soap-opera version of this play out in Brooklyn over the last three years while they fought unsuccessfully to emerge from underneath the New York Knicks’ shadow. The Clippers may rue the day they traded SGA for George, but he wasn’t alone in his triumphant return.
Jalen Williams chipped in 20 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and from distance. Then Oklahoma City guard Lu Dort served Leonard some of his own medicine via a dose of All-NBA defense on the final possession of regulation to secure the win.
The Thunder, who built their core organically in contrast to the Clippers’ prosaic mercenary squad, are on the verge of breaking into the Western Conference’s top six and the ultimate payoff could play out over the long term.
On the Clippers’ side, their title chances will rest on the severity of George’s knee. After losing Leonard for consecutive postseasons, 2023 has been a dismaying experience. After all the overprotective protocols to effectively wrap their stars in bubble wrap, they poisoned whatever team chemistry they did have in reserves and are in danger of slipping into the play-in crevice. George may wind up being able to recover before the postseason, but their momentum is trending in the wrong direction.