LOS ANGELES — It had been nearly two weeks since Paul George donned a Clippers uniform, 12 days without playing in a game. At times, it has felt longer than that for a team that has struggled to find consistency in their lineups.
But the seven-time All-Star was back on the court on Tuesday night for the first time since tweaking his right hamstring on Jan. 5, an injury that had already sidelined him for five games earlier this season.
“It’s just good to have PG back,” a smiling Coach Tyronn Lue said. “I would rather have PG in the lineup even if he hasn’t played than not play at all. I’m very excited about that.”
Lue’s excitement, however, was tempered by a missed opportunity to string together a couple of victories. Joel Embiid scored 41 points and the Philadelphia 76ers subdued the Clippers in the fourth quarter, sending the hosts to a 120-110 defeat – their eighth loss in the past 10 games.
“I thought we did some good things,” Lue said. “We just got to be disciplined as far as taking care of the basketball. You can’t have 19 turnovers against a good team and expect to win. And so that hurt us.”
Still, having George back in the starting lineup gave the Clippers an initial boost and they kept pace with the Sixers for the first quarter.
George’s first play was a defensive rebound. His first basket was a pull-up jumper. He made three of four shots before taking a seat after seven minutes and no one was happier than Lue who watched as his two biggest stars took the court for just the 16th time this season.
Kawhi Leonard, who has stayed injury-free while George has been nursing his hamstring, has carried much of the load in the forward’s absence, averaging 26.2 points per game. He led the Clippers again on Tuesday with 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting to go with four rebounds.
Together, though, the two worked to get the team back into the game, combining for 10 points during a three-minute stretch in the third quarter that trimmed the Sixers’ 14-point lead to one at 70-69.
“You know, his first game back so he still has to get in the rhythm of playing again, get his legs under him, but it was fun to have him back out there,” Leonard said of George.
George came out at the 4:54 mark of the third, but Leonard kept pushing the pace and the Clippers took their first lead on a layup by center Ivica Zubac. Leonard broke free for a 3-pointer to give the Clippers their largest lead to that point at 84-81 with 2:43 remaining in the third.
The 76ers eventually regained the lead at 90-89 at the end of the third and never relinquished it. After getting outscored 37-27 in the third, the Sixers dominated the fourth, outscoring the hosts 30-21.
Maxey carried the 76ers early with Embiid resting. He hit three consecutive 3-pointers and had a pair of free throws to extend the 76ers’ lead to 101-93. The Sixers ran off 11 in a row, including four by Embiid and a 3-pointer by Georges Niang, to extend their lead to 115-98, quieting the feel-good moments of the night for the Clippers’ coaches, players and fans.
Embiid – who had 35 points and 11 rebounds in a win against the Lakers on Sunday – dissected the Clippers’ defense on 12-for-20 shooting from the field and a 15-of-18 showing from the free-throw line to go with his nine rebounds. Tyrese Maxey added 22 points off the bench and Tobias Harris 20.
Whether it was having George back in the lineup or not, the Clippers’ offense at times went stagnant and turnovers crept back in. They had 10 at the half and 19 overall, leading to 24 points.
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“I thought we did some good things tonight, outside of just taking care of the basketball – 19 turnovers for 24 points is tough when you want to beat a really good team like that,” Lue said. “So, that’s been our Achilles heel all year.”
George finished with 13 points and eight rebounds in 29 minutes, numbers that didn’t surprise Lue. He expected him to “be a little rusty” offensively.
“He had some turnovers he wouldn’t normally have,” Lue said. “Just getting him back on the floor was a positive thing for us.”
Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers, who coached the Clippers from 2013-20, knows what Lue has gone through with this season’s injuries and uncertainty surrounding Leonard and George.
“I think PG and Kawhi had two practices (together) my entire time here,” Rivers said. “But now, they have been through playoff wars. They at least have had that, but it’s still disrupting.
“It’s hard, you know, it’s just so tough. … You just need games in a row.”