When Chauncey Billups was poached from the Clippers’ staff last summer to coach in Portland, he inherited no small number of issues, from an unhappy superstar to last season’s second-worst defense.
His first months on the job delivered progress. The star, Damian Lillard, has since said he isn’t leaving the only franchise he has played for. And early returns suggest the defense is a work in progress. Instead on Monday, in his third game as a coach, a different problem altogether awaited Billups — one he’d had a hand in creating.
Last season, he and assistant Roy Rogers were on a Clippers staff whose defensive strategy to trap Lillard relentlessly helped hold a player voted one of the NBA’s best 75 of all time to 17% shooting, including only 7% on three-pointers, in two games — five made baskets in total. It was Lillard’s lowest offensive rating against any opponent last season.
And here began the “chess match,” as Billups called it before tipoff against the Clippers at Staples Center.
It wasn’t only that he was trying to free Lillard by poking holes in a Clippers defense he knew so well. He was attempting to outscheme a best friend who knew Billups’ likes, dislikes and potential counters like no one else — because he’d helped build Billups’ coaching foundation. During the early days of the pandemic, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue spent six weeks at Billups’ Colorado home to give the fellow former point guard a crash course in coaching.
Monday was their first matchup as coaches. Lue acknowledged it had been “different” preparing for a coach who knew the inside of his mind like Billups, likening it to his first game coaching against his own mentor and friend, Doc Rivers.
“I kinda know how he sees the game,” Billups said before tipoff. The Clippers last season “did a very good job on Dame. So obviously I know that, obviously I’ve watched that and you try to find a way to combat that. We’ll see what happens.”
What happened was another problem for Billups to fix, another brutal offensive outing for Lillard, and a win that is the Clippers’ first this season, a 116-86 rout so thorough that reserves played nearly all the fourth quarter.
On a night when the Clippers did not look entirely on the same page early, with nine turnovers and Paul George and Ivica Zubac at times conferring on where each needed to be — and while starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. watched from the sideline because of a bothersome left knee — they made Portland look far worse.
The Clippers’ 21 steals were their most since 1991. Lue credited Nicolas Batum, who started in place of Morris, with creating havoc early. George’s eight steals were a career high.
Their 37 assists were their most since 2015, and “we should have had 50,” Lue said, bemoaning more missed shots after 47% shooting, including just 32% from deep.
And Portland’s 30 turnovers were the most by a Clippers foe since 1996. It looked less like chess than a lopsided game of checkers.
Guard Luke Kennard scored a team-high 23 points off the bench, making six of seven threes. George’s 16 points came on 16 shots and Reggie Jackson’s 18 points required 20 shots.
“Still not shooting the ball as good as we’re capable of doing, but if our defense is playing like this, like we played tonight, we’re going to be able to get shots and catch up,” Lue said.
Lillard made four of 15 shots but missed all eight three-pointers and finished with 12 points. He had as many turnovers (four) as free throws. A baseline jumper was blocked by Justise Winslow. A dump-off pass was intercepted on the second half’s first play. The more troubling issue for Portland was that it could not be explained as a one-off night of trouble against an opponent that now has a track record of making the incandescent star look shaky — not when Lillard has made just two of 24 three-pointers and 18 of 50 shots overall through three games for Portland (1-2).
“We just try to blitz him and keep the ball out of his hands as much as possible,” Lue said. “He get can hot at any time. We know that; the whole world knows that.”
But it was not even the Clippers’ defense against Lillard that pushed their lead to 14 after one quarter and created a blowout that left Staples Center half empty in the final minutes. The Clippers unrolled a 16-1 run and held Portland without a field goal for nearly five minutes to end the first quarter, with Lillard largely on the bench. It was a preview of what was to come.
It was not a surprise that first-quarter run came with a Clippers lineup featuring reserves center Isaiah Hartenstein and guards Terance Mann and Kennard. The trio had outscored opponents by 13 points in 14 minutes together through two games. They remain this team’s spark plugs, bringing the rest of the unit to life. Lue noted their conditioning is ahead of his starters, helping the reserves play together and “know who they are” so early into this season.
“They’re a younger crew so they were playing with a purpose,” Lue said.
Billups spent much of the second half sitting as his team fell behind by as many as 35. Lue will quickly see what kind of response his friend can get out of his new team. The Clippers see Portland again Friday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.