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Clippers

Column: Clippers need to find blueprint to win without Kawhi Leonard

Clippers forward Paul George puts up a shot amid a pack of Thunder defenders during a game Nov. 18 at Staples Center.
Clippers forward Paul George puts up a shot amid a pack of Thunder defenders during a game Nov. 18 at Staples Center.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

The Clippers didn’t use the term “load management” in their justification for Kawhi Leonard missing the last three games. He didn’t play because of a “knee contusion” — an injury he suffered Wednesday.

Leonard’s knee might really be bruised, and it might really be why he hasn’t been available the last two games. But whatever the reason, it’s obvious that Leonard’s load is going to need to be managed this season because there’s no hiding from it.

The Clippers absolutely need him. Without him, they’ve been lost, unable to rely on the toughness that defined them a year ago.

The Clippers hung on to beat Oklahoma City 90-88 Monday night in a game that very easily could’ve been their fourth loss without Leonard this season. Last year’s Toronto Raptors, the team that delivered the Clippers the blueprint for keeping him healthy enough, went 17-5 in games without him.

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Monday, the Clippers were just a missed jumper away from loss No. 4.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers challenged a foul and won and it might have been the difference in a victory over the Thunder.

Coach Doc Rivers rejected the idea that the Clippers would need almost separate teams because of planned player absences.

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” Rivers said. “…It won’t be a lot.

“We’re just going through it right now.”

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But what worked before worked so well — there’s not a lot of reason to deviate.

Paul George’s return was supposed to ease this process — a process designed to get Leonard to the playoffs as close to 100% as possible. He’s only three games into things and is clearly still trying to figure out how he fits with his new teammates.

George missed Montrezl Harrell on two passes in the first half before connecting with him for a lob in the fourth. He’s blown some key late-game defensive assignments — the kinds of mistakes that surely won’t persist for a player of his tremendous skill on both sides of the ball.

But even without George, the Clippers seemed perfectly built for this precise task. They are, after all, largely the same team that stood eye-to-eye with teams way more talented. Sure, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari were big parts of that, but the Clippers seemed to thrive as the underdog.

Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) shoots under pressure from Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the first half of a game Nov. 18 at Staples Center.
Clippers guard Terance Mann (14) shoots under pressure from Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) during the first half of a game Nov. 18 at Staples Center.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

But here’s the thing — they’re not underdogs anymore. Everyone around the league knows they need to play well and play hard to beat the Clippers. No one is surprised by that anymore.

Recapturing their unapologetic “we-win-despite-being-less-talented” attitude won’t be easy because the Clippers aren’t less talented than anyone.

A game like Monday was just as much about defensive grit as it was about both teams missing fairly clean looks.

And the Clippers missing open shots? That’s an entirely different issue.

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With Leonard (and George together), the Clippers’ identity should be easy to find — they’ll have two of the very best players in the league on the same team and they’ll be able to keep one on the court at all times.

But while we wait for the other big duo in Los Angeles to debut (maybe Wednesday against Boston), the Clippers should try to find comfort in the pair they’ve ridden over the past year-plus — Lou Williams and Harrell.

The two shared the court more than any other two Clippers did a year ago, one of the most feared pick-and-roll combinations in the NBA.

Monday in the first half while the Clippers clanked open threes, Williams slid past defenders for his pillowy-soft fading jumpers.

The Lakers’ iconic gold jersey is a huge fan favorite, but the team keeps treating the Staples Center faithful to purple threads. What’s up with that?

And when defenses committed to him, he was always ready to hit Harrell with the perfect pass to a terrific finisher near the hoop.

“That was Trez, rolling down the paint, and he took advantage of it,” Rivers said.

The magnetism between the two is undeniable. Harrell is a willing screener who always seems to be in the right place for easy baskets at and above the rim. Every time Williams dribbles the ball, Harrell looks for him because it’s good offense.

The Clippers can hope that they have George and Leonard for most of the season. It might even be the plan right now.

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But the reality is that the Clippers are going to play a sizable percentage of the season without Leonard.

No one around the league expects anything different.

It’s why figuring out how to make it easier without Leonard should be the Clippers’ top priority.


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