When the Los Angeles Clippers signed free agent Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2019, both team and player held a common goal: win an NBA championship.
Leonard already has two rings under his drawstring — first with the Spurs in 2014 and then again with the Raptors in 2019 during his lone season in Toronto. For the Clippers, however, a title would be their first, and as such, even though they are hot on the trail of the Suns for second place in the West, they plan to do whatever it takes to make sure they’re playoff-ready. Even if that means sitting Leonard right now.
Speaking to the press before L.A.’s Tuesday matchup with the Indiana Pacers, Clippers head coach Ty Lue revealed that Leonard is currently day-to-day with a sore foot and would not play. Leonard’s scratch against the Pacers (a 126-115 win for L.A.) was his second in as many games, and reportedly he will not play in Wednesday night’s tilt with the Detroit Pistons
Ty Lue says Kawhi is on the trip, and is considered day-to-day. Serge, as mentioned, is not on the trip, and is “progressing,” but there remains no timetable for his return.
— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) April 13, 2021
Though missing three straight games is never a good sign of a player’s health, Clippers fans should fear not. First off, the fact that Leonard is traveling with the team during their short, three-game road trip out East is, according to Lue, “a good sign.” More importantly, the coach has made it clear that he and the organization are ready to take their chances now in exchange for playoff stability.
“We talk about it as a coaching staff and with the sports science guys,” said Lue. “Just trying to figure it out and do the right thing for our players and what’s necessary. In the future, what I think is gonna happen is some guys get some time off, just to get their bodies in the right spots and the right place going into the playoffs. Just to make sure we’re fully healthy or as healthy as we can be.”
Assumed translation: If this were the playoffs, Kawhi could and would play.
Murray Injury Serves as a Reminder
Though already willing to pre-emptively remove some firepower from the lineup, the recent season-ending ACL injury to Denver Nuggets star Jamal Murray has nonetheless contributed to Lue’s thought process.
“You hate to see that happen to any player,” Lue said. “It makes you put a lot of thought into your team, what you need to do and all the necessary things you do to make sure your team is as healthy as can be going into the playoffs.”
After all, the Clippers have been hit by the injury bug for much of the season, particularly the second half, beginning with center Serge Ibaka’s back spasms and then with two injuries to point guard Patrick Beverley, who broke his hand against Phoneix on April 8, just two games after returning from a knee issue that has sidelined him for a total of 20 games this year. (He’s missed two more for rest.)
But with a couple of new faces joining the team — mainly Rajon Rondo from Atlanta, and, to a much lesser extent, Boogie Cousins, whose 10-day contract expires Thursday — Lue is being tasked with the balancing act of sussing out team chemistry while also keeping guys healthy.
“It’s a fine line,” said Lue. “We still haven’t had our whole team since Rondo has been here. Pat Beverley came back and played two games, Serge has been out for a while. So we still have to get some continuity with the new guys and see who plays well together, and still understand that we gotta get guys some rest so we’re able to be as tough as we can going into the playoffs. It’s a fine line, but just gotta do what’s best for the team and what’s best for the player.”
Lue Reveals Goals Down the Stretch
Even between dealing with injuries and giving guys rest here and there, the Clippers are winning. Led by Paul George and Marcus Morris (and Leonard, before he went out), going into Wednesday’s game versus the Pistons, L.A. has won six straight and 12 of their last 14, including a 7-2 homestand that featured some of the top contenders in the West.
Lue has liked what he’s seen, obviously, but knows that remaining focused and continuing to work on priorities is paramount.
“Just keep building the same habits,” said Lue when asked what he hoped to see over the Clippers’ remaining 16 games. “Attacking the paint, getting to the rim, making the extra pass to the corner when teams are overhelping. When teams blitz us, how we’re going to attack it. When teams double-team the post with Kawhi, how we’re going to attack it. Small-small pick and rolls when teams are showing. All those habits we’ve been talking about over the last five months. You can definitely see it coming, and we’re getting better and better.”
Lue said the same goes for defense, noting specifically the Clippers 131-124 win versus Detroit, which was much more in doubt than the final score would indicate:
“Defensively, having that [habit-building] mindset. Outside of that Detroit game, where I thought they were too comfortable early on, and when we tried to get physical and shut them off it was too late. But there’s going to be games like that. Outside of the Detroit game, I think defensively we’ve really taken a step forward. Just continue to keep doing those habits on both sides of the basketball is really what I want to see going down the stretch.
Over the last 15 games, the Clippers are 7th in the league in defensive net rating and second in net rating.
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