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Los Angeles played without Kawhi Leonard and then Paul George, and still outplayed Portland down the stretch

COPYRIGHT 2020 NBAE (PHOTO BY JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES) - Jusuf Nurkic had a near triple-double, but the Los Angeles Clippers, playing without Kawhi Leonard and then Paul George, still managed to beat Portland, 122-117.A Los Angeles Clippers team playing without Kawhi Leonard and then without Paul George for the final 5:09 of the game still managed to put a pause on the Portland Trail Blazers' playoff push.

It was a stunner, as basically the Clippers' second unit made plays offensively and defensively down the stretch, and Damian Lillard missed two late free throws as Los Angeles beat Portland 122-117 Saturday in the NBA bubble at Orlando, Florida.

Leonard rested on a back-to-back situation for the Clippers, who face the Eastern Conference's No. 7 team, sub-.500 Brooklyn, on Sunday. The Clippers were already playing without injured Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. And, L.A. coach Doc Rivers brought George to the bench with 5:09 left. "Load management down the stretch," George told TNT after the game. "Playing it smart."

But, while conspiracy theorists might try to say the Clippers want the Blazers to face rival Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs — and a win would have helped the Blazers make the No. 8 vs. No. 9 Western Conference play-in games — the Clippers hardly bought into the narrative.

Following a rare Gary Trent Jr. 3-point miss, Patrick Patterson converted a three-point play to tie the game at 115-115, but Lillard drove to the basket for the go-ahead score. An end-of-the-bench L.A. player, Rodney McGruder, then canned a 3-pointer to put the Clippers ahead with 26 seconds left, 118-117.

Lillard drew a foul and went to the line. The 87% percent free-throw shooter missed both shots with 18.6 seconds left. L.A.'s JaMychal Green made two free throws at the other end, before Lillard missed a 3-pointer. Landry Shamet's two free throws sealed the Clipper win.

"It's a make and miss league, gotta make 'em. It's a surprise," George told TNT about Lillard's misses. Remember, Blazer fans, it was George who called Lillard's long 3-pointer that eliminated his Oklahoma City team last year in the playoffs a bad shot.

George mockingly waved goodbye at Lillard, as Lillard had done after making the big shot against the Thunder. Beverley also waved and celebrated Lillard's misses.

Lillard lamented the misses, and brought up the times that his 3-pointers sent George's team (last year) and Beverly's team (Houston, 2014) home for the playoffs.

"Sometimes that's going to happen," he said. "Experiencing so many of those moments, sometimes you come up short. I left two free throws short, ended up hurting us, we lost a game we really needed to win."

Lillard said he didn't take offense to actions by George and Beverley. "It's a sign of respect," he said. "If anything, it should show you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through.

"I've shown what I've done at a high clip more times than not."

The Clippers (47-22) are vying to stay in the No. 2 Western Conference playoff spot. And, the Blazers (32-39) are still firmly in the No. 8-No. 9 playoff conversation as they prepare to play the second game of back-to-back games at 3:30 p.m. Sunday against Philadelphia. The Sixers will be without an injured Ben Simmons, who reportedly will undergo surgery (left knee).

It was a tough loss to take, Lillard said.

"They made the plays we didn't make," he said. "Every breakdown we had on the defensive end they made us pay for it. On our offensive end, we didn't execute very well. ... They outworked us for the win, simple as that."

Added coach Terry Stotts: "I was disappointed at both ends in the last few minutes. We didn't move around and offensively and didn't get shots we wanted, and the shots we did get we didn't make."

COPYRIGHT 2020 NBAE (PHOTO BY JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE VIA GETTY IMAGES) - Even with the Los Angeles Clippers resting Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard and his teammates had a lot to handle, defending Paul George and others.A highly entertaining game of offense gave way to better Clippers defense in the second half. The Blazers shot .612 from the field in the first half (10 of 13 3-pointers) and .341 in the second half (6 of 22 3-pointers). The Blazers stepped up defensively, too, helping make the game close.

Lillard went 3 of 12 from the field in the second half (0 of 7 3-pointers) after a hot first half. He finished with 22 points.

CJ McCollum had 29 points and Josef Nurkic had 10 points, 13 rebounds, nine rebounds. Trent had 22 points, making five more 3-pointers — he's now 28 of 45 on 3-pointers in the bubble (.622). Carmelo Anthony had 21 points.

George had 21 points, Shamet 19 and Marcus Morris Sr. 15 for the Clippers.

Hassan Whiteside sat out for Portland (left hip strain).

Everybody was feeling it, offensively, in the first half. Zach Collins and Nurkic hit 3-pointers. Lou Williams had 12 first-quarter points for the Clippers, obviously a deep and talented team even without star players. Portland stretched out its bench usage — Stott said by necessity, because of Zach Collins' early foul trouble — and led 37-34 after one quarter.

"Both teams have responded offensively," Rivers told TNT at the quarter break, before adding, "One of them is going to have to play some defense, hope it's us first." (It was).

The offensive spectacle continued in the second period. Trent went 4-for-4 on 3-pointers. He threw an alley-oop to Simons for a dunk on a break. The Blazers led by 10 points at one point, and 75-69 at halftime.

The Blazers shot .333 in the third quarter (2 of 10 3-pointers, with Trent going 0-for-3) and led only 96-95 entering the fourth quarter.

Still, two Trent 3-pointers helped put Portland ahead 108-103 on the brink of crunch time. The Blazers said they should have put away the Clippers, but "give the Clippers credit, they had a bunch of young guys running around double-teaming and trapping and they made some big shots. We didn't make plays at the end to win the game."

Added Lillard: "We gotta finish regardless of who's on the floor. The previous game against Denver (which played without four starters) our urgency and focus down the stretch was great."

And, a golden opportunity was lost for the Blazers against the Clippers.

"It's still gonna hurt, but it's part of the game," McCollum said. "When you're playing for a chance to make playoffs, every game is a must win."

Added Stotts: "Hopefully we have the mindset of knowing how important (the Sixer game) is."

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