LOS ANGELES — Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has continued to tinker with his lineups, searching for the right combinations as he looks toward the postseason.
But he knows one thing for sure. His starting lineup will center around Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac, four players who have played together for four seasons.
“We have to start building off that, start getting a rhythm, playing that way,” Lue said. “We’ve been really good offensively with those four guys starting.”
Lue wasn’t disappointed as all four figured prominently in a close 108-100 victory over the Toronto Raptors that elevated the Clippers (35-33) into sixth place in the tightly packed Western Conference standings.
George, who has been playing at a high clip lately, continued that pace with 23 points. Leonard appears to have rounded into playoff form with another strong showing. He had a game-high 24 points, a season-high 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals against the team he helped lead to the NBA title in 2019.
While Morris had another quiet night, Zubac finished with 17 points and eight rebounds.
The fifth spot in the starting lineup has been held down by point guard Russell Westbrook since he joined the team. But Terance Mann might have made a case for that spot against the Raptors. His strong passing game and solid shooting off the bench, including a dunk with 5: 52 left in the game to give the Clippers a 97-88 lead, helped keep the Raptors from mounting any serious challenge down the stretch.
Mann scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting from the field, had four rebounds and four assists in 29 minutes.
The Clippers narrowly avoided possible overtime as the Raptors charged back late in the fourth quarter. Toronto used a 15-4 surge to erase a double-digit lead and pull within 104-100 with 54.1 seconds left. But a dunk by Zubac off a nice lob feed from George and a pair of free throws by Leonard sealed the victory.
Defensively, the Clippers, who came into the game with the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating, have allowed opponents to come back in the second half, especially in the third quarter. Three nights after giving up 51 points to the Memphis Grizzlies in the third quarter, though, the Clippers didn’t make the same mistake.
They took care of the ball and outscored the Raptors 13-2 with Kawhi and four role players in the third and took an 83-74 lead heading into the final quarter, avoiding the kind of third-quarter collapses that have plagued them lately.
Mann seemed determined not to repeat that mistake and after he passed to Mason Plumlee for a layup with three minutes left in the third for a 77-68 lead, he vigorously waved his arms to get the crowd going. It was a different gesture than last game when he was seen kicking the air in frustration.
“We just got to make sure defensively we have a defensive mindset and I think it starts with our turnovers, just taking care of the basketball, not allowing teams to get out and transition and make ’em play against our half-court defense,” Lue said.
The Raptors have struggled outside of their own building, going 12-21 on the road this season. Not Wednesday. From the start, they took control of the game and opened a 10-point lead (23-13) late in the first quarter, with nine of those points coming off turnovers.
Before the game and at shootaround in the morning, Lue stressed the need to take care of the ball against the league’s No. 1 team in scoring points off turnovers.
“We talk about that every day, we showed clips this morning, like when we turned the basketball over, teams are getting layups and dunks,” Lue said. “And we can’t get back, we can’t recover, we can’t get matched up. We just have to make the simple play and the simple pass.”
Lue’s message sunk in as the game progressed. The Clippers started finding the basket and cutting down the errant passes to eventually tie the score at 31, and again at 41 when Westbrook found George for a 3-pointer that tied it with 3: 05 left in the second quarter.
It remained a back-and-forth affair for the final minutes and was all even at 49 when Zubac attempted a high-flying dunk at the buzzer that was ruled late, leaving the score at 49-49.
Although the Clippers shot 56.3% from the field in the first half, they were just 3 for 10 from behind the arc without Norman Powell, who missed his third game because of a shoulder injury. He is shooting 41% from 3-point range and averaging 16.6 points.
Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes each scored 20 points for Toronto, and O.G. Anunoby had 18 points.
More to come on this story.