Clippers takeaways: Kawhi Leonard feels ‘good’ in return, but team shows growing pains
Time isn’t running out on the Clippers’ season. Still one of the hottest teams in the NBA since the All-Star break, they could be playing through June, if not July.
But as starters with lingering injuries slowly return to the court, there are only three weeks remaining before the postseason begins for coach Tyronn Lue to find his best possible rotations.
“It’s going to take everybody to get to our ultimate goal,” Kawhi Leonard said.
Leonard was the first piece to return in Saturday’s 110-104 loss to Denver at Staples Center, which bumped the Clippers into fourth, a half-game behind Denver, with seven games remaining. Patrick Beverley could be back later this homestand, whose next two games are Tuesday against Toronto and Thursday against the Lakers.
Even when Beverley and center Serge Ibaka return, the puzzle of the team’s best lineups remains only partly put together. Lue said last week that because his team is so veteran-laden, it gave him confidence that the combined experience knowing schemes and tendencies could help his team gel quickly in a short amount of time.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Knowing where every player fits is a “bit of a challenge” this late in the season, said Paul George.
“The good thing about this is for the most part, a good group of this team has been together for a little bit, so the difference is we’re integrating maybe one guy into a lineup, or maybe two guys, the most, into a lineup, at a time,” said George, who scored 20 points but needed 21 shots against the Nuggets. “Majority of this group has been here, we’ve been playing with each other, so it’s just more so about whoever is integrated, we’re getting them up to speed and getting them comfortable playing with that group.”
Kawhi Leonard returns for only the second time since sustaining a foot injury April 8, but it wasn’t enough to help the Clippers beat the Nuggets.
Five takeaways from the Clippers’ third consecutive loss:
1. Leonard is no stranger to managing a lingering injury (see: San Antonio and Toronto) and he felt the Clippers “took the proper steps to get me right, to make sure nothing significant is wrong with me,” after playing only his second game since April 11 because of a sore right foot.
“It’s not something that just occurred after the last game,” he said. “But I’ll be all right, I’ve been through situations like this before.”
After an aggressive start, Leonard went more than seven minutes on the court without scoring between his last basket in the third quarter and his first of the fourth, with four minutes to play.
“He didn’t play at his normal pace of attacking and getting to the basket like he usually does,” Lue said. “You know, haven’t played in nine to 10 games, that’s to be expected, but it’s just good to have him back on the floor, and we just build from there.”
The Clippers outscored Denver by seven in the 25 minutes Leonard and George were on the floor but they fell to 28-10 when both play.
“Hopefully we can continue to keep him healthy,” George said. “But he’s going to be better and better. He’s going to get better and better. That’s just who Kawhi is.”
2. As Beverley and center Serge Ibaka have done earlier this season, Leonard could have stayed in Southern California to continue his injury recovery during the team’s recent three-game road trip to Houston, New Orleans and Phoenix but chose to join the trip believing it would help speed up his transition back to the court.
In a season where Leonard has been described as more of a willing, vocal presence within the locker room, the decision also kept him part of the team’s daily routines. There is a significant difference between being part of the team’s group chat, and being there in person.
“I want to be at those games watching them, knowing what the game plan is, hearing the coaches, hearing my teammates, seeing the process of going to shootaround, getting ready to go back to the hotel, come back to the arena, get ready for the game, just everything,” Leonard said. “Just wanted to still be in that motion, be in that rhythm and most importantly letting guys know I’m here and you know, just let them hear my voice and see my face.”
3. Lue was frustrated that the defensive game plan wasn’t followed and pointed to Michael Porter Jr.’s open shots as a glaring example.
Porter Jr. finished with 25 points, making 10 of his 16 shots, and the Clippers didn’t make his night as difficult as it should have been.
“We said with Michael Porter Jr., no catch-and-shoot threes, he’s shooting 48% from three, we give him four or five of them, I think,” Lue said.
Kawhi Leonard will play Saturday night when the Clippers face the Denver Nuggets, and Patrick Beverley’s return to the starting lineup also appears imminent.
4. Projecting the postseason role DeMarcus Cousins might hold has been something of a mystery because the Clippers have never had their full center rotation available since he joined in early April and Cousins has been limited by his knowledge of the playbook. But when backup center Patrick Patterson was not effective on either end during his seven first-half minutes Saturday, Lue kept him on the bench after halftime while playing Cousins 15 minutes. He responded with 16 points, and closed the fourth quarter over starter Ivica Zubac.
Maybe this reflected a what’s-the-worst-that-could-happen choice by Lue, who had found few answers for Nikola Jokic up to that point, to the extent the front-running MVP candidate can truly be subdued. The Serbian center known as the Joker wasn’t exactly fazed by Cousins’ defense, either — gliding by him for one layup, then drawing two fouls in seconds by the three-point arc on Cousins late in the fourth quarter — but the fact he was in the position in the first place pointed to the potential of a larger postseason role than once imagined if Ibaka remains questionable entering the postseason. Because even if his knowledge of the playbook remains limited, Cousins is still a big body with touch around the rim — who clearly has trust from his coach.
“Cuz was just still trying to learn the defense and offense, but I mean he’s just a player, so you know, forget all the plays and everything, just get him on the floor, he makes things happen,” Lue said. “I thought he got physical with Joker, I thought he was able to post and did some good things on the block also. In the second half I just had my mind made up that I was gonna play Cuz a little bit and just see how it looks, you know, just for us going forward.”
5. The first-half issues with the Clippers’ reserves weren’t Patterson’s alone. The Clippers were outscored by 11 in Nicolas Batum’s 19 scoreless minutes and minus-12 in Terance Mann’s 13 minutes. Lue said that Batum had turned down shots he should have taken and acknowledged that his tinkering with rotations could have had something to do with disrupting Batum’s rhythm. Since scoring 17, 14 and 14 points in consecutive games ending April 13, Batum is shooting 36%, but his coach wants him to keep shooting.
“He’s a 40% three-point shooter. When he catches the ball, he needs to let it ride, let it fly,” Lue said.
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