Their faces inches from one another, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley and Damian Lillard, his Portland counterpart, locked eyes with one another midway through Wednesday’s third quarter. For more than 30 minutes, their teams had waged a lopsided game lacking much suspense. Now, a flicker of tension finally seemed possible.
Four months earlier, during the teams’ last meeting amid the NBA restart, near Orlando, Fla., Beverley’s pointed laughter from the sideline after Lillard missed a critical free-throw began a chorus of howls the Trail Blazers and their typically clutch star interpreted as bald-faced disrespect. Lillard reminded reporters after the game how his game-winning shots had ended Beverley’s postseason with Houston in 2014 and Paul George’s Oklahoma City tenure in 2019.
Within minutes of Lillard’s comments hitting social media, Beverley and George took swipes on Instagram. Lillard wrote back — then family members joined in.
When the Clippers crashed out of the playoffs weeks later, Lillard gleefully trolled the franchise on Twitter.
Those jabs from afar were why heads turned when Beverley and Lillard met up close at the top of the three-point arc. But whatever was said was brief, with any potential disagreement defused.
Lillard walked to the free-throw line, Beverley to talk with official Scott Foster.
There was no drama Wednesday in a 128-105 Clippers victory.
Only a cold, clinical dissection that improved them to 4-1.
“Nah, it literally wasn’t mentioned one time,” guard Lou Williams said of the teams’ past banter. “Everything in the bubble is in the past.”
The Clippers made 14 three-pointers in the first half, second-most this season in a first half, behind only the 16 Milwaukee made Tuesday en route to an NBA-record shooting night from deep.
Despite playing on the second consecutive night, with legs potentially heavy, the Clippers blitzed Portland during a 76-point first half that saw their advantage balloon to as many as 30 points.
“Tonight we were locked in,” said Paul George, who scored 23 points and had 10 rebounds with seven assists.
Wearing a customized mask to protect eight stiches near his lip and jawline, Leonard assisted six times during the first half to help the Clippers record at least 30 assists for the third time in their first five games.
Leonard finished with a game-high 28 points on 17 shots, a performance that belied what he said was discomfort. His return, after watching Sunday’s loss to Dallas and Tuesday’s win against Minnesota from the sideline, was cleared only after he could open his mouth and talk, he said.
His mask, with a large hole for his nose and eyes and a smaller hole for his mouth, will be worn until his stitches heal, Leonard said. The hard plastic protection added a degree of security but posed other challenges, and not only because it was hard to breathe in, Leonard said.
For one, teammates have begun calling Leonard “leatherface.” So the forward responded with a joke of his own.
“Serge [Ibaka] can’t talk too much, we’ve got him on the trading block right now,” Leonard said. “Whoever wants him, let us know. We’re trying to trade Serge.”
Coach Tyronn Lue felt Leonard was winded during the first half of his return, but “really took over in the third quarter” by scoring 12 points.
The victory was the Clippers’ second by double digits following a 51-point blowout loss to Dallas on Sunday.
“We’re just playing really good basketball, we’re playing trusting basketball,” Williams said. “We know we have a lot of guys who are capable and we’re just playing with trust and playing freely.”
Lillard had no response for what the Clippers threw at him this time, scoring 20 points but only after making three of his 14 shots. Fourteen of his points came at the free-throw line, with the majority of possessions hounded by Beverley. Lue discounted any added motivation stemming from the teams’ bubble beef.
Lillard “wants to destroy everybody he plays,” the coach said.
Earlier Wednesday, Lillard had said he didn’t believe the Clippers and Trail Blazers had a true rivalry, because those are built on the court. By that definition, then, Wednesday’s result offered little to stoke the fires.
Portland coach Terry Stotts pulled all but one of his starters with eight minutes to play. This time, in the final minutes, the Clippers kept any sideline antics muffled.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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