The Los Angeles Clippers are officially in the stretch run of the season. With seven games left on tap before the start of the playoffs, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Tyronn Lue and company have entered the critical phase of the year where they’ve got to ‘lock in.’ The myriad of injuries, however, has made that damn-near impossible.
Following losses to two of the better teams in the West this season, the Clippers path to a top three seed and a more favorable playoff opponent has become much more unclear. Their loss to the Phoenix Suns didn’t affect their tiebreaker status, but it did give the Suns an extra game advantage in the standings. Their loss to the Denver Nuggets gave the season series to Denver, so a tie record at the end of the year would give them the lower seed. At the very moment, however, seeding matters little to the Clippers.
“We’re just taking it game by game, trying to get healthy,” Lue said when asked about his thoughts on a pursuit of the West’s one-seed. “Just try to play our best basketball going down the stretch, not trying to look too far ahead and say we want to try to get the No. 1 seed with nine games left. Like, we just gotta take it a game at a time, and if we’re in that position to do that, it would be nice to do, but we can’t look too far ahead. Because we can get the No. 1 seed, but we also can drop to the 4 or 5 if we’re not careful. So we just gotta take it game by game, try and play our best basketball, get bodies back. Get healthy and then start working on our rotations and stuff going down the stretch. So that’s our main goals.”
The Clippers’ lineup of Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Marcus Morris, and Ivica Zubac has only started two games together all year. Granted, Tyronn Lue officially made the move starting with the March 15th game against the Mavericks, but the Clippers have played 25 games since then. Prior to that, the lineup featuring Beverley, George, Leonard, Nicolas Batum, and Serge Ibaka was able to start 19 games together, but that was out of a possible 40 games.
All in all, the Clippers have used 23 different starting lineups this season, and with only seven games left, there’s really no option but to go with whoever is healthy and available.
“I just think we just gotta go with who’s healthy right now.” Lue added. “Just think that’s gonna be a rotation until we get guys back, and then we’ll fill them in.”
“But it’s been hard. Our young guys, our veteran guys, even Nico [Batum] and PatPat [Patterson], those guys have really stepped up. Amir, Terance, Luke, those guys really stepped up as well. They got the experience so it’s a little different than it was last year because we kinda played different lineups because guys were gone, and we didn’t have a lot of time to play those guys in those lineups during the regular season. So everybody’s touched the floor, everybody’s played with each other, so I do feel confident about that. But like I said, it is important that we start getting guys back in a timely fashion because we are running out of time.”
At this point, the biggest question marks for the Clippers revolve around the health of the team. When healthy, this team has proven its ceiling to be higher than last year’s team, without a doubt. They’re deeper at every position, have a much cleaner offensive system with guys that can be plugged in everywhere, and have the perfect mix of youth and veterans in place to withstand the grueling run at a championship.
Every injury that forced Leonard, Beverley, and Ibaka to miss time, however, seemingly had the Clippers hitting the pause button. Beverley has missed 34 games, Ibaka has missed 26, Leonard has missed 18, George has missed 16, and Morris has missed 14. That’s the entire starting lineup missing 108 total games altogether.
With Kawhi Leonard’s return to the lineup now, the Clippers are getting closer to whole again.
“I’m back, we’re just going to have to do it with what we have,” Leonard said after Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets. “We won games before so we just got to keep this rolling and see the adjustments and the players are going to play in certain situations to help us win games.”
The Clippers have done a good job of winning games all season. They’re 43-22 on the year, in a deadlock with Denver for the three seed, and only four games back of the Suns as well as the Jazz despite their myriad of injuries.
Winning hasn’t necessarily been the, ‘problem,’ per se. It’s been the lack of health, lack of consistency, the lack of communication, and lack of defensive intensity from the opening tip. Some nights, Ty Lue’s team looks as locked in as ever. Other nights, they lack, ‘pop,’ as Lue likes to say.
“It definitely starts with winning, but we want to jell as a team,” Kawhi Leonard added. “Knowing spots to go to when the defenses are playing in certain ways, reading the offense when we’re on defense, knowing who the key guys are, knowing what plays they’re running and just pretty much just trying to gel on that and communicating and making sure that all five see it on the floor and everybody that’s on the bench sees it as well. Like I said before it’s going to take everybody to get to our ultimate goal.”
Leonard’s running mate, Paul George, is one of the players that’s had to play some heavier minutes than the team would’ve liked over the last couple of weeks, but he’s certainly taken advantage of the added opportunity. During the month of April, George averaged 27.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.5 steals per game on 48.1 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from beyond the arc. During one eight game stretch where they went 7-1, George averaged 32.9 points on 51.6 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent from beyond the arc.
George says he doesn’t feel worn down despite the added weight of being the Clippers’ primary scorer and creator over the last few weeks.
“I think the luxury of this team is the strength that we have with the depth,” Paul George said. “So we’ve been well. One game where we didn’t play so well and we just have to do a better job, it just came down to effort and energy. We just have to do a better job, but we got to hold it down for the guys who are nursing injuries. We know injuries are part of the game, but we got to hold it down for them.”
While the depth of this team is something the team has been able to bank on all season, it’s not something Ty Lue wants to continue banking on with the playoffs near.
“When guys are injured, it’s running other guys down. Guys are still playing a little banged up, playing more minutes than we want them to play, playing out of position a little bit, so we gotta get guys back… We gotta start getting guys back and start playing these games going down the stretch getting some kind of rhythm with our whole team.”
The additions of Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, much to people’s surprise, have been great for the Clippers. Cousins has shown that, in the right role, he’s still a force to be reckoned with and a valuable piece coming off the bench. Rondo, on the other hand, has shown his tempo and ability to get guys the ball in their spots while also teaching behind the scenes. Whether he was sidelined with an injury or available, Lue said Rondo is constantly showing film to Leonard, George, and Morris about where to get them the ball and how to improve their play together.
Look at the Clippers bench erupt after Reggie Jackson’s game winner. pic.twitter.com/7lx3zRe4Dv
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) April 15, 2021
Credit the players as well as the entire coaching staff for keeping guys ready to play and coming up with some improbable wins throughout the season despite having multiple players out. Both games vs. the Miami Heat, the 22-point second half comeback vs. the red-hot Atlanta Hawks, the win over the Milwaukee Bucks without Kawhi, and the comeback win over the Detroit Pistons are among a dozen or so games the Clippers won that they likely shouldn’t have, considering the opponent, their schedule, and their list of injuries.
With Kawhi Leonard back, Patrick Beverley nearing a return, and Serge Ibaka ‘progressing’ over the last few weeks, the Clippers are in great shape. They’re close to 100%, and that’s all you can ask for at this stage in the season when so many teams have key guys out.