Kawhi Leonard scores 36 points on 16 shots as Clippers win 7th in a row

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Five weeks and 19 games ago when James Harden made his Clippers debut in New York, he joined a roster that was a collection of talent, but far from a team.

They mustered only 97 points. They had no feel for how to navigate a tight game.

No one expected their post-trade adjustment to be solved in the first 48 minutes at Madison Square Garden, but few, also, expected it would take four more games for their first win with Harden.

Check back in February, when the NBA’s trade deadline will indicate how much the Clippers’ front office believes the roster must still be upgraded, to sense how far this team has truly progressed. But Saturday nonetheless marked the closing of a symbolic circle — and the mid-December results could hardly be more different than early November.

In a 144-122 rout of the Knicks at Crypto.com Arena, the Clippers were comfortably in control for the last 26 minutes while extending their winning streak to seven — equaling their longest in the last eight seasons. By improving to 15-10, they have won 12 of their last 15 games.

The result was so lopsided that midway through the fourth quarter Harden spent part of a timeout attempting trick shots behind his back, off the backboard, as referees watched.

Harden scored 10 points with 12 assists, but the spotlight was again on Kawhi Leonard, who scored 36 points on only 16 shots. Leonard has scored 30-plus points in six of his last 10 games, after doing it once in his first 15 — a streak that is a bellwether of how the team has increasingly progressed from punchline to problem in the past five weeks since Harden’s debut.

“It’s exactly what I envisioned just how we should play and how we can play,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “The biggest thing is just PG, Kawhi and James making each other better on a night-to-night basis.”

Their 36 assists tied their season high, from the season-opening win, and they are now 5-0 when recording 30 or more assists this season. It could have been even higher because of the several wide-open shots Harden created that were missed, but as it was, seven Clippers scored in double figures as the team made 16 of its 33 three-pointers.

Clippers forward Paul George puts up a shot against the Knicks in the first half Saturday.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Paul George and Leonard combined for 28 points in the third quarter, only four fewer than all of the Knicks combined.

“Honestly, we’ve been locked in, everybody’s playing at a high level,” George said. “We’re taking care of the ball. Our defense has been great. And our attention to detail has been great.”

In his return from a hip injury, George scored 25 points and seven Clippers scored in double figures as the team made 16 of its 33 three-pointers.

For much of their November malaise, the Clippers struggled to learn how to win close games — finishing the month with a 2-7 record in games within five points in the final five minutes. Their defense produced more holes than stops, giving up 122 points per 100 “clutch” possessions. But in December, they were 4-0 in clutch games, their defensive rating upgrading to 92.6, an improvement that traced their overall turnaround over the last two weeks.

Their clutch play was just a footnote Saturday, as they ensured the game would not be close late. By the final minutes, the Clippers emptied their bench to the point that several on the floor had played in a G League game in El Segundo that had finished only two hours before tipoff downtown.

Inside the locker room, the streak has left players and coaches feeling as though their private confidence, even during the rocky first two weeks after Harden’s acquisition, was warranted, their focus on the long view of the trade’s impact correct.

“Obviously, the guys have to get used to the guys on the floor; we still are as well,” Leonard said about what has changed since Harden’s debut. “The coaching staff, as well, still have to figure out rotations, you know, what plays to call. It’s been a group effort.”

This will be tested again in the next week, with road games against three of the top seven offenses in the league, at Indiana, Dallas and Oklahoma City. The Clippers finished Saturday with the seventh-best defensive rating. But one year ago to the day they ranked fifth — yet fell to 18th over the next two months.

“Some great offensive teams, but we got some good defenders on this team and guys with high IQ, that read very well on defense that can make plays,” center Ivica Zubac said. “It’s going to be a great test for us.”

This team could be insulated from such a fall because of the presence of a true backup center in Daniel Theis, compared to last season’s patchwork rotation at the position, and the health of Leonard and George, which has allowed Lue to assign them to opposing teams’ best players earlier in the season. In past seasons, he would usually reserve that tactic until the spring, hoping not to overwork his stars, or tip his hand.

A game that finished in a pounding began with a roar as Zubac, a major figure in the team’s turnaround, albeit mostly in the background, moved to the forefront.

Ranked among the NBA’s best at protecting the rim this season, Zubac blocked an attempted layup by RJ Barrett on New York’s opening possession, made a floater at the other end and then, barely two minutes in, leaped from two feet just outside the restricted area inside the paint and outstretched his 7-foot frame to dunk over New York center Jericho Sims. It was violent enough that Sims — playing in the place of injured starter Mitchell Robinson — never played again until the start of the third quarter.

In past seasons, Lue has prodded Zubac to play more authoritatively around the rim; after this dunk, Zubac ran back on defense yelling, the noise lost in the arena’s larger uproar. He finished with 11 points in the quarter to push the Clippers into a lead that remained tenuous until widening to 11 at halftime. Despite making only five three-pointers, the Clippers scored 77 points in the half because their 30 free throws were the most attempted by any team in any first half this season.

Zubac has scored in double figures in 12 of his last 13 games — coming after he had done it four times in the first 12 games.

Even with the return of George bringing the Clippers back to effectively full strength, Lue tweaked his rotation by inserting wing Amir Coffey into the bench unit in place of rookie Kobe Brown. Coffey was coming off Thursday’s composed, 18-point performance as a spot starter in George’s absence, and was a better defensive matchup, whether guarding New York’s collection of reserve wings and guards, from Josh Hart to Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes, individually or at the top of a zone.

Lue said Coffey had “earned the right to have the opportunity to play.”

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