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Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times
Andrew Greif

Clippers pursuing Nets star Kyrie Irving; Nicolas Batum the hero in win over Knicks

NEW YORK — The pass from Paul George found Clippers wing Nicolas Batum in the right corner with 1.7 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

The 3-point shot left his hand six-tenths of a second later.

Just as fast, the groans were heard inside Madison Square Garden.

Batum’s shot ripped through the net, forcing overtime and staving off another fourth-quarter collapse, after the Clippers led by as many as 17 to begin the quarter. The literal last-second shot was the only 3-pointer the Clippers made in the fourth quarter.

Given new life, they did not miss their opportunity, pulling away over the five extra minutes to win, 134-128.

Yet for all of the late drama taking place in the heart of Manhattan, much of the night’s attention was on trade talks involving the team across the East River, as the Clippers have joined a number of suitors — a group that includes the Lakers — pursuing possible trades for Brooklyn point guard Kyrie Irving, people with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly on the matter confirmed.

The NBA’s trade deadline is Thursday, but there is a belief the Nets could be motivated to make a move quicker than that. The front offices of the Nets and Clippers worked as trade partners in 2020.

Irving has generated a litany of off-court headlines and controversy since joining the Nets in 2019, from missing the majority of the 2021-22 season after he declined to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, to a trade demand last summer and an eight-game suspension this season after posting a link on social media to a movie that included antisemitic messages. Then he reportedly asked to be traded again Friday over disagreements with the Nets over a contract extension.

Irving has supporters within the Clippers because when he is on the court, he is among the league’s elite at point guard, a position the Clippers have been looking to upgrade in the weeks before Thursday’s trade deadline. The Clippers have also been linked to trade talks for Toronto’s Fred VanVleet and Utah’s Mike Conley, among others.

With the Clippers, Irving would reunite with his former coach in Cleveland, Tyronn Lue, who coached Irving at his career’s ultimate high during the 2016 championship run with LeBron James. Irving has played 40 games this season for Brooklyn while averaging 27.1 points and 5.3 assists on 48% shooting.

The Clippers’ pursuit of Irving last summer felt tepid over concerns of his reliability. Before the June draft, team president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank was not asked about Irving directly but said the team evaluated additions by understanding “the basketball character of the player.” Innately, he said, the team’s best players are its leaders.

“Your people create your culture,” Frank said, “and so yeah, we look at all those things and try to study, if we are going to bring this player in the locker room, how does it fit?”

Irving did not play in or attend Brooklyn’s victory Saturday against Washington, citing calf soreness. Nets coach Jacque Vaughn told reporters in Brooklyn that he is approaching Irving’s absence as day-to-day. The Clippers will face the Nets on Monday in the finale of their six-game road trip.

As the Nets field trade calls, the Clippers played a game that looked strikingly similar to the one they’d lost only two days earlier in Milwaukee, when they’d built a 21-point lead only to falter offensively in the final quarter.

Leading the Knicks by as many as 17 points in the fourth quarter, the Clippers’ lead was whittled to 112-110 with one minute to play after a 16-6 Knicks run. Then point guard Jalen Brunson drove into the lane, his pass to the corner finding Quentin Grimes for a three-pointer and one-point lead.

Just as against Milwaukee, the ball was put in Kawhi Leonard’s hands, but his jumper missed with 40 seconds to play. On the next possession Brunson scored on a floater, what looked to be the game-clinching basket — until Batum’s dagger.

In overtime, the Clippers lead grew to as much as eight with one minute to play.

This time they protected it, with no need for late heroics.

Leonard scored 35 points in a season-high 41 minutes and George added 30. Norman Powell scored 24 off the bench.

For the second consecutive game Luke Kennard did not play in a coach’s decision. After playing what was virtually an eight-deep rotation Thursday in Milwaukee — the ninth, Robert Covington, played all six of his minutes before halftime because of starting center Ivica Zubac’s foul trouble — Lue used a true eight-man rotation against the Knicks, with Kennard and Robert Covington the odd men out.

For Clippers on the rotation’s fringe, enduring spells without playing time has been a common occurrence this season. Of course, with the NBA’s trade deadline looming on Thursday, any roster decision will be parsed for added meaning.

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