No panic. Seemingly nothing to fret about. Just the Clippers’ franchise player missing another game for a new reason.
Kawhi Leonard sat out against the Miami Heat on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena because of an illness. The team made a point of saying Covid wasn’t the culprit, but there is plenty of other nasty stuff going around this winter.
The Clippers consistently opt for safe over sorry with Leonard, who has played in only 16 of the Clippers’ 39 games this season and 125 of 203 regular-season games since signing with the team ahead of the 2019-2020 season.
Even though the Clippers are 11-5 with him and 10-13 without him this season — as well as an astonishing 88-37 with him and 22-43 without him in three seasons — Leonard-less does not necessarily mean rudderless.
Even though the Heat dominated the waning minutes and won 110-100, the Clippers didn’t come away entirely empty-handed. Their roster is deep, and every time Leonard is out — knee and ankle injuries have sidelined him this season, not to mention nods to load management — coach Tyronn Lue is afforded another opportunity to experiment.
The court becomes Lue’s laboratory as he mixes and matches reserves with starters, height with quickness, experience with youth, trying out fresh combinations until one or more produce something approaching alchemy.
He’ll seemingly sacrifice a handful of regular-season games in a quest to solidify combinations that might remain rock-solid through the rigors of the postseason. Thirteen different players have started games and 13 players average more than 11 minutes a game.
The Clippers are 21-18 and in sixth place in the Western Conference, amid a cluster of teams keeping their heads above .500. As long as the experimenting doesn’t jeopardize a reasonable playoff seeding, expect Lue to continue with his mad-scientist routine.
Although he’ll emphasize defensive intensity regardless of who is on the floor.
“The last five or six games that urgency hasn’t been there,” Lue said. “We have to play better defense or it doesn’t matter who is on the floor.”
Terance Mann started in place of Leonard against the Heat, who on Dec. 8 defeated the Clippers in Miami behind a combined 57 points from their two superstars — Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. Leonard didn’t play in that game either, resting a sore knee.
All things considered, Mann would have preferred Leonard in the lineup.
“It’s hard,” Mann said. “Injuries in and out, you think you have something going, then one goes down, one comes back, you lose one, you get one. So we lack the consistency to string 10 games together where we are locked in and everybody is healthy.”
The Clippers trailed until pulling even 40-40 midway through the second quarter on Nicolas Batum’s three-pointer. The Heat scored the next nine points, however, and led 67-49 at halftime. The Clippers answered resoundingly in the third quarter, outscoring the Heat 34-14 to take an 83-81 lead highlighted by four consecutive threes — three by George and one by Marcus Morris Sr.
The combination that dominated the third quarter was the same starting lineup that fell behind in the first quarter.
“We had a great third quarter,” Lue said. “I thought our physicality really picked up and our defensive urgency picked up. It was pretty much our starting lineup that made it happen.”
None of Lue’s experimenting changes the fact that the Clippers have virtually no chance of winning their first NBA championship without Leonard playing big minutes at full strength. With him and George on the floor together, the Clippers are 9-5 this season. Not only are they elite scorers, they play excellent defense and free teammates to assume appropriately complementary roles.
George often flourishes when joined by Leonard. He scored 45 points on 15-of-25 shooting — including seven of 13 three-pointers — with nine rebounds and three steals in that game. Without Leonard on Monday, he scored nine points on three-of-eight shooting in the first half before igniting in the third quarter with 13 points and finishing with a team-high 25 points.
The Clippers are back on the road to play the first-place Denver Nuggets on Thursday. Their home-heavy schedule to start the season is over and the opponents for the most part will be more difficult.