LOS ANGELES — In DeMarcus Cousins’ first game with the team, and Patrick Beverley’s first game since March 11, the deep, new-look Clippers experimented with different levers on the thermostat, alternating between plenty warm and overwhelmingly hot Tuesday night against the Portland Trail Blazers.
In the end, it was too much for Damian Lillard and Co., whom the Clippers beat handily for the second time this season at Staples Center. This one went L.A.’s way, 133-116.
Paul George led the way with 36 points on 11-for-18 shooting, including going 6 for 9 from 3-point range, 8 for 8 from the free-throw line and 7 for 9 in the first quarter.
“The toe felt good, so I felt like I had pop tonight, a little pop in my legs and my foot,” said George, who’s been battling swelling in a toe bone on his right foot for much of the season.
“So obviously, mentally, that allowed me to feel better and play better. And then I just had the mindset to come out scoring and being aggressive to score.”
His co-star Kawhi Leonard had his third consecutive double-double, finishing with 29 points after going 10 for 18 from the field and 8 for 9 from the free-throw line; he added 12 rebounds and seven assists.
And with the Clippers’ expanding depth, Reggie Jackson raised his hand to be the one to help seal the victory Tuesday, taking Clippers coach Tyronn Lue up on his request that he play with a score-first mindset in his first game off the bench in 12 contests.
Jackson scored 16 of his 23 points in the second half on 5-for-6 shooting to help his side distance itself from the always dangerous Blazers, who erased all but two points of what had been a 26-point lead in the third quarter.
Despite that, and 32 points from former UCLA standout Norman Powell and 24 from CJ McCollum, the Clippers never trailed for the second consecutive game as the Trail Blazers dropped to 30-20.
Lillard saw a lot of Beverley as well as a steady blitz from a parade of other Clippers and finished with 11 points on 2-for-14 shooting. It was the second-lowest scoring output of the season for the All-Star guard, who is averaging 29.2 points per game; the only time he scored fewer points was in the Blazers’ season-opening setback against Utah on Dec. 23.
The Clippers improved to 34-18, a victory set up by Tuesday’s blazing start. L.A. made its first nine shots and built a 15-point lead in the opening quarter, when they shot 72% (18 for 25) from the field for 47 first-quarter points, a franchise first-quarter record, established with help from George’s 22-point first-period explosion.
They stayed hot to start the second quarter before cooling, with Portland’s encouragement. After they led 62-36 with eight minutes to play before halftime, the Trail Blazers trimmed that buffer to just seven points with a 30-11 run to end the period.
In the third quarter, the Clippers built some momentum with a 7-0 sprint, then lost it just as quickly when Portland outscored them 12-0 to trim the margin to 84-82.
But with the recently acquired Rajon Rondo directing the defense and helping the Clippers wrestle back control, L.A. finished the third quarter strong and went into the final period leading, 101-89.
From there, they proved up to the task of fending off Portland’s fine fourth-quarter performers, in Damian Lillard (7.8 points, second-most in the league in the final 12 minutes entering Tuesday) and his team (28.1, third), outscoring the Blazers 32-27 in the final frame.
L.A. finished the game shooting 51.7% (46 for 89), and 16 for 41 from long range – making them 18-2 this season when they make 16 or more 3-pointers.
In his debut, Cousins made a quick dent in his three competitive first-half minutes, scoring four points on 2-of-3 shooting, pulling down an offensive rebound and dishing two assists.
The 30-year-old center with the voluminous injury history is not the fleetest afoot running north and south, but he proved mobile enough around the rim, and a stout presence, too, his size and physicality being the attributes that attracted the Clippers to him, Lue said before the game.
Lue inserted the four-time All-Star back into the game with 3:55 left and the outcome no longer in question, and the big man added to his total, finishing with seven points and four rebounds.
“It felt good,” said Cousins, whose last game before the Clippers signed him as a free agent on Monday came Feb. 17 as a member of the Houston Rockets. “Obviously after the first couple of runs up the floor, everything starts to feel normal again. It’s moreso habit and instinct that kind of kicks in. The more reps I get, the more comfortable I get on the floor. With each opportunity, I am going to get better.”
Beverley was glad to be back at it too, he said.
In his return, he not only harassed Lillard, but he also gave the Clippers eight points, four rebounds, three assists – and four fouls – in 20 limited minutes as a starter.
“I’m back,” said the high-energy guard, who missed the previous 12 games with what was characterized as a sore right knee and described Tuesday by Beverley as training staff-relegated rest.
“They told me I worked too hard, I mean that’s a new one. But anyone who knows my career, I played overseas four or five years, two practices a day, a lot of miles, lot of miles. So you know I got to listen to the training staff, you know we have a great one here, so they tell me I’m working too hard, so I got to kind of dim it down a little bit.”
Though likely not by much Thursday, when the Clippers host the sizzling, fourth-seeded Suns, who have won six games in a row and 10 of their past 12.