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Clippers duo of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George lives up to billing in Game 3 win over Jazz

The one-two punch that the Clippers envisioned when they first paired Paul George and Kawhi Leonard together two years ago certainly manifested itself in Game 3 of Los Angeles-Utah series Saturday night at the Staples Center.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George celebrates after hitting a three-point shot during the second half of Game 3 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Utah Jazz Saturday, June 12, 2021, in Los Angeles.
Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

The one-two punch that the Clippers envisioned when they first paired Paul George and Kawhi Leonard together two years ago certainly manifested itself in Game 3 of Los Angeles-Utah series Saturday night at the Staples Center.

George led the way in the first half of the Clippers’ decisive 132-106 victory over the Jazz, scoring 20 of his 31 points before halftime. Leonard then spearheaded the charge in the second half, as he put up 24 of his game-high 34 points over the final 20 minutes as LA trimmed Utah’s series advantage down to 2-1.

“It’s great,” George replied when asked what it’s like to have him and Leonard both play so well in the same game. “We both understand we’ve got to be aggressive from this point on and do whatever it takes to win. That’s just the mentality we had was to come out and get this team on the right start offensively, and again, just be aggressive. That’s what it’s going to come down to for us.”

Coming into Saturday’s game, George hadn’t been his best self offensively, going a combined 12 for 35 in the Clippers’ two losses in Salt Lake City. But the former Fresno State star knocked down 12 of 24 shots overall and 6 of 10 3-point attempts on his home floor in Game 3.

According to Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, the reason behind George’s improved offensive performance was “simple.”

“He started off hot; he started off well. And I liked his aggression tonight,” said Jackson, who added 17 points and five 3-pointers for the Clippers. “I liked the way he kept it simple. He made simple reads, whether it be shooting or whether it be attacking. I think he just made the game easy for him.”

“… His energy is electric and it’s contagious, so once he gets it going, we all kind of feed off of it. It makes the game easier for us because we’ve all seen him through the years and all know how he can explode and how he can get it going.”

Los Angeles certainly needed that spark early. After giving up a short hook shot to Utah forward Bojan Bogdanovic and then surrendering two wide-open threes to Joe Ingles, Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue called his first timeout a mere 74 seconds into the game with his team already down 8-0.

Jackson quickly responded with a 3-pointer after the timeout, while the Clippers took things up a notch defensively. After making their first three shots, the Jazz knocked down just 10 of its next 12 attempts, and Jackson and George sparked LA’s offense. A 3-pointer by George with just under two minutes left in the first quarter capped a 23-10 run by the Clippers that gave the home team the lead for good.

“Early on, we got hit in the mouth; they came out punching,” Jackson declared. “So, we wanted to make sure that we responded, and wanted to make that we put our foot on the gas and played with a sense of urgency. I think we did that after the timeout, and we were fortunate enough to get some stops.”

Most importantly for the Clippers, they limited Utah guard Donovan Mitchell to just three shots and zero points in the first quarter. Mitchell, who put 37 points in Utah’s win on Thursday, quickly made his presence felt when he checked in about three minutes into the second quarter. But even though the young star ended up scoring 16 straight points for the Jazz, it still wasn’t enough to catch the Clippers thanks to George’s hot hand.

Back-to-back treys by the 11-year veteran stretched LA’s advantage to as many as 16 points in the second quarter, and the Clippers led 64-49 at halftime.

At intermission, Leonard was just 4 of 12 from the field and 0 for 4 from 3-point range for 10 points. But the MVP of the 2019 NBA Finals quickly regained his form early in the second half, helping the Clippers build a 17-point lead before the Jazz were finally able to put together a significant run.

“I thought (Leonard) missed some easy shots early on in the first half, but he was going to come out and attack in the third quarter and we ran the first play to try and get him going,” Lue said of Leonard. “He just kind of went from there, and we needed every bit of it.”

After an 18-9 spurt by Utah pulled the Jazz to within eight points, Lue called another well-timed timeout with four minutes left in the third quarter and George responded by jumping up over Bogdanovic with the shot clock running out and knocking down a 3-pointer from the corner.

After George’s shot, the Clippers never let the Jazz get within single digits again and went on to dominate the fourth quarter as Leonard continued to assert himself offensively.

“PG and Kawhi really set the tone. PG early; Kawhi late. And that’s really what we need from our two best players is to be able to set the table for everyone else, and that’s what they did,” Lue replied when asked about having George and Leonard both play so well in the same game.

Despite the dominating play by his two superstars, Lue still called the victory a “total team win,” and he said he was very pleased with his squad’s physicality, rebounding effort and one-on-one defensive mindset after the first 74 seconds of the game.

Even though Mitchell ended scoring 30 points in 32 minutes, Lue said he was still happy with his team’s defense against him for the most part.

“The biggest point of emphasis was just making sure that we handled Donovan tonight. No easy baskets. He earned pretty much everything he got tonight.”

Jeff Hunter is a contributor for the Deseret News.