Kawhi Leonard sits out with an illness, Clippers lineup experiments fall short in loss
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.
The Heat dominated the waning minutes and won 110-100, but 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 with everyone.
"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, even 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 Paul George and one by Marcus Morris Sr.
The lineup that dominated the third quarter was the same that fell behind in the first quarter. Lue diagnosed the difference.
"I thought our physicality really picked up and our defensive urgency picked up," Lue said, specifically pointing to Mann as a difference-maker on defense. "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 with nine rebounds and three steals in a 131-130 loss to Indiana on Saturday. 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 despite leaving the game for a stretch in the second half after grabbing his right hamstring.
George returned in the fourth quarter and downplayed the injury afterward, saying he would have the hamstring — the same one that sidelined him for three weeks earlier this season — treated Tuesday.
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. Point guard Reggie Jackson noted that the season is nearing the halfway point, and identified a downside to the avalanche of experimenting with different lineup combinations.
"The calendar turned to 2023 and we need to start playing with more urgency," said Jackson, who along with Mann, George, Morris and center Ivica Zubac started the game and triggered the third-quarter rally. "It's us not figuring out our system yet. We still have to figure it out... The season is moving quickly, it's a new year, 2023, and we don't have as much time as we want."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.