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Clippers resume season as they started it, with depleted roster and title hopes

Clippers coach Doc Rivers talks with forward Kawhi Leonard during a game earlier this season.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers talks with forward Kawhi Leonard during a game earlier this season. The pair returns to the court to restart the season Thursday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Clutching a pair of New Balance sneakers before practice Wednesday morning, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard was less than 36 hours away from the resumption of his ninth NBA season.

Or is it his 10th?

More than four months after the suspension of the NBA season because of the novel coronavirus, the league’s official restart Thursday, sequestered on the Walt Disney World campus, feels to some less like a continuation of the 2019-20 season than the start of another.

“Basically,” Leonard said, “it’s a new season, pretty much.”

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Yet for the Clippers, success in the so-called NBA bubble will be measured against the same expectations and challenged by the same complications that have followed ever since their first training camp opened 10 months ago.

By signing Leonard as a free agent, trading for fellow All-Star forward Paul George last summer, and months later bolstering the roster by adding starting forward Marcus Morris, backup guard Reggie Jackson and third-string center Joakim Noah, the Clippers have gone all-in to win the 50-year-old franchise’s first NBA championship.

That collection of raw talent has rarely been questioned.

Their ability to harness it, however, has been.

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In the 64 games before stoppage of play, the Clippers were injured so often the entire roster was available to play only 11 times. Their 10-1 record in such games offered ample evidence why the Clippers have been a popular championship pick. So did their brutal routs in late February and early March of playoff-bound Denver, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Houston, lopsided wins that pushed the Clippers into second place in the Western Conference standings.

Their seven victories in the last eight games before the shutdown offered only a glimpse of their potential. The Clippers’ new starting lineup, with Morris included, has played just 124 minutes together.

Despite the attention that Thursday’s game against the Lakers is getting, the Clippers’ focus is on everyone being healthy in time for the playoffs.

In Orlando, their focus on a championship, and elusive search for continuity, has picked up where it left off. As such, an answer to the team’s long-running question could be coming: When you boast two of the best all-around players in Leonard and George and surround them with perhaps the league’s deepest roster, how important is rhythm?

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“We’ve got eight games to get ready for the playoffs,” Leonard said. “We’ve got to use these games to build some habits and just build team chemistry, really.”

Though the Clippers reported to Florida healthier than at any point this season, the coronavirus-delayed arrivals of Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet, along with bubble exits by Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell for personal matters, whittled the 15-man roster to 10 last week. The revolving-door roster has been frustrating at times, coach Doc Rivers acknowledged.

Zubac and Shamet will play in Thursday’s anticipated opener against the Lakers. Beverley could as well, Rivers said, depending on whether Beverley can clear quarantine in time after leaving July 21 to deal with the death of a close friend. Harrell has yet to return to Disney’s campus while tending to what has been called a family emergency. Williams will miss the first two games while enduring a 10-day quarantine period following his return from Atlanta, where he attended a funeral and had a much-publicized meal at a strip club.

“By the time the games start, we won’t have that many out, but we’ll have maybe two to three guys, key guys out, and that’s asking a lot,” Rivers said. “Having said that, that doesn’t stop us from believing we’re going to win every game. We have great confidence. ”

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To suggest that Harrell and Williams are vital to the Clippers is an understatement. If the duo were a team, their 37.3 points off the bench this season alone would rank 15th among the NBA’s 30 teams.

Less quantifiable, yet undeniable, is the energy Harrell creates. Though opponents typically target Williams’ defensive shortcomings late in games, his clutch offense has often been a counterbalance. He has made 14 field goals in the final three minutes of fourth quarters this season when the score is within five points; no other Clipper has more than eight.

“No one is going to replace those two, we know that,” Rivers said. “So we’re going to have to try to make it up in other ways with a different rotation.”

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As a result, players whose roles waxed and waned during the fall and winter, such as Shamet and Rodney McGruder, are expected to receive more immediate opportunities. Noah, a former defensive player of the year whose Achilles tendon injury last summer nearly ended his career, wasn’t expected to be a high-impact addition when he was signed to a 10-day contract in March. The 35-year-old is now in line to back up Zubac until Harrell’s return, and after four months of extra time to rebuild his strength during the hiatus, Noah displayed sharp defensive instincts and passing during the Clippers’ three tune-up scrimmages.

“We have a lot of bodies, a lot of good players,” Noah said. “Now it’s everybody getting back on the same page. We’re here for the long run.”

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The lone blemish on the Clippers’ hot streak before the hiatus was a March 8 loss against the Lakers — their only defeat this season when playing with a full roster. That game was heralded as a potential preview of May’s Western Conference finals. No one then could have known the rematch would be postponed by four months and take place 2,500 miles away.

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“Right before the season stopped, we were getting really good,” said Zubac, whose arrival was delayed nearly three weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus. “But I think we are on the right path, and when we all get back together, we’re all going to work. We’re all going to grow through these seeding games, and by the playoffs, I think we’re going to be in good shape.”


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