LOS ANGELES – Kawhi Leonard and LA Clippers overcame a 15-point early third quarter deficit to defeat LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Christmas Day, 111-106. Facing a 12-point deficit at halftime and heading towards a spoiled Christmas, Doc Rivers entrusted his own team to figure out what was wrong.
Following the win, Rivers revealed that his halftime speech didn't consist of a lot of himself talking. Instead, he asked his players what they thought the reason was for allowing a 17-2 run to end the first half.
“I think it was interesting,” admitted Rivers. “I think they knew, I asked them to talk, I didn’t talk much. I asked them, ‘what did you all see?' They said, ‘they’re playing harder.' I said, ‘so that’s the easiest adjustment we can make all year if that’s true.' And I thought our guys did that.”
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the comeback from the 12-point halftime deficit was the largest halftime deficit overcome to win on Christmas Day since the Dallas Mavericks did it back in 2003. It was also the 5th-largest overcome to win over the last 50 years.
“I just thought they came in better prepared, they were locked in,” Rivers added. “I thought they played harder than us in the first half. I thought they executed better and we did that in the second half and down the stretch. I loved down the stretch on both ends, we got the sets we wanted every time down and I thought we had the matchups defensively every time down.”
Clippers' star Kawhi Leonard was a major part of the comeback, putting up 35 points while also grabbing 12 rebounds and handing out five assists.
“We were just saying we’ve gotta stop worrying about the game,” Leonard stated. “We’re not gonna blow teams out, it’s not going to be easy. Every night is going to be a battle and stop worrying about the score. Just play every possession. Play hard. If we’re losing, don't look up, just keep doing what we have to do to win. I think we did that in the second half.”
The Clippers faced their biggest deficit of the game at 68-53 early in the third quarter. Key stops, transition opportunities, and just plain hard-nose basketball helped them tie the game up at 86 apiece heading into the fourth quarter.
In the fourth, the Clippers again faced a seven deficit with 6:39 remaining. This time, however, a team effort on both ends led to a 17-5 game-winning run.
“I think that second half, we just came out and said, ‘forget everything,'” said Montrezl Harrell, who put in 18 points off the bench. “‘We want to go out here and play our way of basketball, we're gonna compete and we're gonna be that hard playing team. If they still beat us with that, then hey, we just gotta live with it.'”
“We just needed to attack,” added Paul George, who finished with 17 points. “To go downhill and keep our focus on the floor and not on distractions, not on the officiating. We just kept everything together. And we were poised down the stretch.”
The focus of one Patrick Beverley was especially big late when the guard strip-blocked a game-tying three-point attempt by LeBron James with 3.6 seconds remaining.
“It was great. It was big,” Leonard remarked. “That gave us the ball, gave us the possession, just pretty much a game-winning play.”
“I just tried to make a play on a great player,” Beverley added. “I went for it the first time, I kinda missed it. I didn't wanna hit him on his elbow. I kinda reached back and I was just fortunate to make a defensive play.”
The Clippers survived 20+ point nights from James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma despite Lou Williams only scoring six points and George finishing with 17. Biggest reason for that was they had the best player on the court in Leonard.
Leonard scored 11 of his 35 points in the final frame, and finished the night shooting 11-of-19 shooting from the field, 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, and 8-of-8 from the free throw line. The five three-pointers marked a season-high for the 2019 NBA Finals MVP.
“Kawhi was special,” Paul George affirmed with a smile. “He won us the game. He led us.”
“He was terrific,” added Rivers. “We needed it. He made big shots, made big passes, and again I thought the little action with him and Lou and Trez at the top of the key was really good. They just worked it together and I loved seeing that from this team.”
Possibly the most interesting quote from Leonard came when he was asked about defending James one-on-one at times. The Clippers have been doing their best to unleash Leonard while preserving him at the same time. That includes not always defending the best player on the opposing team. Leonard shot down any significance to the matchup.
“I guarded other people as well,” claimed Leonard. “It’s not about you guarding a player one-on-one. We've been losing a lot of games from team defense, not even one-on-one matchups. So, just for me, it feels like we need more team defense other than you overemphasizing me guarding LeBron or their best player. It’s more about the team.”
In the two head-to-head matchups this season, Leonard has vastly outplayed James in the battle for best player in Los Angeles. Leonard is averaging 32.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.5 steals on 55.3% shooting from the field, 50% from beyond the arc, and 94.4% from the free throw line.
James, on the other hand, is averaging 20.5 points, 9.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, and 1.5 steals in the two matchups against the Clippers on 37.2% shooting from the field, 17.6% from beyond the arc, and 75% from the free throw line.
The win vaulted the Clippers up to 23-10 in the Western Conference while dropping the Lakers, who are now riding a 4-game losing streak, to 24-7.