Will Kawhi Leonard play this season? Tyronn Lue senses optimism from Clippers star
Kawhi Leonard made his intentions clearly known from September’s first day of Clippers training camp: His decision to re-sign in August on a longer-term contract was rooted in two interconnected reasons.
“I wanted to secure some money,” Leonard said then, “and I wanted to be able to come back if I was able to this year.”
Three months deeper into his recovery from a July surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, nothing about the All-Star forward’s intent has changed, and that’s only underscored by a report Thursday that Leonard is optimistic about a return at some point this season because of a recovery termed ahead of schedule, according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes.
As he has throughout this season when asked about Leonard’s recovery, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue didn’t provide an update on Leonard’s progress following a 106-89 loss on Thursday in Phoenix, which dropped his team to 19-20 and below .500 for the first time since Nov. 3. Asked whether he sensed optimism from Leonard about a return, Lue said, “yes, optimism, but I mean, I still don’t really know. Like to have a lot of guys back right now.”
ACL experts said in July that most recoveries fall in a range with nine months a typical return date for many athletes, though returns earlier than that are not uncommon. The nine-month mark would fall in mid-April, as the postseason is scheduled to begin.
Finally out of protocol, Tyronn Lue will coach the Clippers on Thursday against the Phoenix Suns.
“I would tell him to take his time, that’s a major injury. And we all know Kawhi is gonna take his time, so when he’s ready, he’ll play,” forward Marcus Morris Sr. said after scoring a season-high 26 points against the Suns. “We’ll welcome him back, we can’t wait to have him back. We just hold it down till he gets here.”
The Clippers have remained adamant amid their short-handed season that they still have enough to win and keep pace in the playoff race. Doing that will require overcoming what Morris called their “Achilles’ heel” — their inability to consistently rebound and limit opponents’ second-chance points.
Although a source of trouble all season — Leonard is an excellent rebounder for his position — it has been exacerbated by the losses of their top two centers, Ivica Zubac (health and safety protocols) and Isaiah Hartenstein (ankle), and wing Paul George (elbow). No matter when they return, however, any turnaround on the glass will start with the Clippers’ shortest players, Lue said.
“I know teams are a little bigger but we still can do a better job of hitting first and bringing that physicality, and we just don’t do it every single night with our guards,” he said. “So when our bigs are going to block shots, when our bigs are helping, or we’re switching one through five, then our guards got to do a better job of you know, hitting first to try to keep those guys off the glass.”
Said Morris: “Got to be a little bit more scrappy, playing a little bit harder. And you know, all five guys got to get in there and fight.”
It’s become one of the most unexpectedly promising pairings — and one that is also expected to eventually have its opportunities dramatically reduced.
Playing Amir Coffey at forward and Justise Winslow as a small-ball center was born out of need amid numerous absences during the last month. Yet unlike many of the team’s emergency lineup combinations it has yielded consistent dividends with a plus-seven net rating — the difference in points scored and allowed per 100 possessions — entering Thursday. It continued against Phoenix with Winslow’s defense, particularly guarding the rim with two blocked shots, and Coffey’s scoring in transition as a result of those stops helping to slice a 19-point deficit against Phoenix to just four late in the fourth quarter.
The Clippers struggle to contain Phoenix Suns’ Chris Paul and Devin Booker as they fall below .500 with a 106-89 loss to the NBA’s top team.
Phoenix outscored the Clippers by five and grabbed six more rebounds in the 10 minutes shared by Coffey and Winslow but also was held to making just nine of its 23 shots, with as many turnovers (five) as assists.
“I thought Justise’s defense really came in at the five and changed the game for us, getting us back in the game with his blocked shots, steals, rebounding the basketball,” Lue said.
As soon as the frontcourt’s depth stabilizes upon the returns of Zubac and Hartenstein, the demand for Winslow’s minutes at center is expected to drop, Lue acknowledged. Coffey, whose steadiness has helped him become as much of a bright spot as anyone on the roster in the last month, could also see his opportunities reduced. That pairing has seemingly proven itself as a change-up option Lue can hold in reserve.
“When we get back healthy, it’ll be tough to try to pair those guys because other guys will play minutes,” Lue said. “They’ve stepped in in the absence of a lot of guys and they play well, so you gotta give those guys credit for staying ready, being ready to play, which they have been doing.”
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: This is the start of consecutive 12:30 p.m. weekend tipoffs for the Clippers (19-20). Memphis (26-14) is 2-0 against the Clippers, with the victories fueled by their scoring in the paint. Point guard Ja Morant’s knifing drives into the defense is central to that — but he has also expanded his range. A 31% three-point shooter his first two seasons, he’s currently making 40% from deep. Guard Desmond Bane didn’t play in Thursday’s win against Detroit because of a quad injury but he has averaged 17.4 points in a breakout second season. Center Ivica Zubac has exited health and safety protocols and is questionable to play Saturday. Luke Kennard remains sidelined by the protocols. … Backup center Isaiah Hartenstein’s contract became fully guaranteed Friday for the rest of the season.
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