Reinforcements could be coming soon to the Clippers’ lineup.
Injured Clippers guards Landry Shamet and Rodney McGruder have each informed coach Doc Rivers they are optimistic they can play during a six-game road trip that begins Friday in Milwaukee, the coach said Tuesday.
Shamet has missed the last 12 games since suffering a high ankle sprain Nov. 11. He has participated in some on-court work recently and traveled with the team Wednesday with the intent of playing at some point during the trip but there is no guarantee he will do so, nor any rush to target a date for his return still so early in the season.
A starter at the time of his injury, the second-year shooting guard could have a changed role because Paul George and Maurice Harkless have moved into the starting lineup since he was hurt. Together with forward Kawhi Leonard, George and Harkless provide three versatile defenders in a lineup that Rivers has bookended with center Ivica Zubac and guard Patrick Beverley.
Still, Rivers wants to pair Shamet, Leonard and George at some point because of the pressure he believes they will apply to defenses attempting to contain multiple shooters. Shamet is shooting 36% of his three-pointers this season and is a 41% career shooter behind the arc. George is shooting 42% from deep thus far, five percentage points higher than his career average.
“The more floor spacers you can get on the floor, the better,” Rivers said. “I do envision running some movement stuff with Landry and PG together. We have two guys moving at the same time. I think offensively that, in my mind, looks fantastic. We’ll see when we get it on the floor.”
“And it also allows us to put one of [Leonard or George] at the ‘four’ at times. … We haven’t done a lot of that, but that is something we really believe will be a very good lineup for us and having Sham back will allow us to do that more.”
McGruder strained his right hamstring during a Nov. 27 victory in Memphis and has missed the last three games. McGruder said the injury wasn’t as severe as initially feared but the team has been cautious with his recovery because of the tricky nature of hamstring injuries.
“Rodney told me he’s playing Friday,” Rivers said. “I don’t believe that, I can tell you that. But that may be true. I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
The injuries have opened up more playing time for second-year guard Jerome Robinson, who is averaging 17.7 minutes and 6.7 points in his last three games with added confidence in his ability to make “winning plays.”
Noticeably, he no longer reflexively looks to Rivers on the sideline after mistakes.
“It’s just something me and Doc talk about as far as he wants me to play through things and figure it out,” Robinson said last week. “Me being out there on the floor in extended minutes, just gotta keep playing and trust yourself and play the game the right way.”
Even without Shamet and McGruder unavailable Tuesday, the Clippers’ defense provided more evidence to George about its stingy capability. Portland scored a season-low 97 points and tied its season low with seven three-pointers.
“It’s one thing to have guys that play defense, but it’s another when you’ve got guys that love to play defense and know how to play defense,” George said. “We’ve just got so many of them out there. There’s an alertness, there’s an awareness at all times of who is the matchup, who’s the hot guys, what guys do we want the ball out of their hands.”
To remove the ball from All-Star point guard Damian Lillard’s hands, Harkless guarded his former teammate more than 65% of the time, according to NBA tracking data. During 17 possessions in which he was guarded by Harkless, Lillard scored five points, making two of his six field goals without attempting a free throw.
Upon joining the Clippers via trade last summer, the 6-foot-9 Harkless told coaches he could guard point guards, in addition to the steady diet of shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards he was used to. Rivers characterized his response at the time as something akin to “prove it.”
Harkless’ success containing Lillard, Dallas’ Luka Doncic and Boston’s Kemba Walker in recent weeks has been one of Rivers’ most pleasant surprises, the coach has said.
“When [Portland] played the Clippers in the playoffs, I guarded Chris Paul, so maybe he didn’t remember that,” Harkless said of Rivers, smiling. “I think he knew. I thought he was just messing with me. He’s kind of given me that role right now on the defensive end to guard other guards and their dynamic, so it’s something that I enjoy and take a pride in.”