Playing without stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Clippers still managed to pull off a key victory over the second-place Memphis Grizzlies in its late-season playoff push, and now its will have to do it all over again.
The two Western Conference foes will meet again in Memphis on Friday, and that game should look far different from the one that was just played.
After missing Wednesday’s game for personal reasons, Leonard is expected to return for the Clippers. The Grizzlies was without Desmond Bane (foot), Jaren Jackson Jr. (calf), John Konchar (hip) and Tyus Jones (foot) but anticipate at least some reinforcements from that list will return.
The stars who did remain Wednesday put on a show as Russell Westbrook turned back the clock with a season-high 36 points for the Clippers (41-36) to go along with 10 assists. Ja Morant had 36 points and nine assists for the Grizzlies (48-28) after missing a game Tuesday with thigh soreness.
With six games remaining, the Grizzlies look locked into the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference, 3 1/2 games behind the first-place Denver Nuggets and two games ahead of the third-place Sacramento Kings.
The Clippers is fifth in the conference, just a half game behind the fourth-place Phoenix Suns, but are only two games from falling into the group of four that qualify for the play-in tournament. Los Angeles has five games left.
It has been a curious season for Westbrook after becoming a bench player with the Los Angeles Lakers to taking much of the blame for his former team’s struggles to a trade to the Utah Jazz, who bought out his contract. His results have been mixed with the Clippers, but behind the scenes he is leading the way.
“We had some hard practices in March and those were like training-camp practices and we needed it,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said. “And for him to set the tone every single day, a 15-year vet, a guy with MVPs, scoring titles, all that, for what he brought to our team as far as everyday work, I thought was really good for us.”
In addition to Westbrook’s output, Robert Covington had 27 points for Los Angeles while making all seven of his 3-point attempts. The Clippers went 22 of 37 (59.5 percent) from 3-point range.
The Grizzlies had a 30-point effort from Dillon Brooks, the resident agitator in Memphis, who can get opponents off their game. He had run-ins with both Westbrook and Covington, but those only seemed to fuel the fire of the Clippers players.
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Asked if the Clippers can be expected to shoot from distance on Friday like they did on Wednesday, Morant said, “I plead the fifth.”
Morant is just four games back from a self-imposed sabbatical and an NBA suspension that lasted nine contests. He admitted Wednesday, after playing 35 minutes, that he still is working on his stamina.
“We have to move slow; we have to be smart,” said Morant, who has averaged 32.1 minutes on the season and just shy of 27 in the past four games. “(Wednesday) was me being out there and trying to help us come out with a win. A little fatigued late in the game but good to have a game with those minutes under my belt now.”
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