With Kawhi Leonard sitting out home game, Clippers lose to the Magic
The news that Kawhi Leonard wasn’t playing Saturday afternoon for the Clippers against the Orlando Magic because of right knee injury management was already a blow with so few games left in the regular season and L.A. jockeying for playoff position in the topsy-turvy Western Conference.
Then after the Clippers lost 113-108 to the Magic at Crypto.com Arena, coach Tyronn Lue was unable to explain why it all went wrong because he wasn’t feeling well enough to talk to the media.
It was left up to associate head coach Dan Craig to provide the answers for why the Clippers fell apart in the fourth quarter.
And it was left up to Paul George and Russell Westbrook to offer their observations on how the Clippers' four-game winning streak ended without Leonard to help the cause.
Westbrook, who had 14 points, nine assists, five rebounds and six turnovers, chose to take the blame for the defeat.
Clearly, it wasn’t just Westbrook’s fault for the Clippers’ demise in a fourth quarter during which they surrendered 39 points as the Magic shot 60%.
“Yeah, I mean, honestly, this one’s on me honestly tonight,” said Westbrook, who was a minus-13 in the fourth quarter in the plus-minus category. “I could have been better. Started off good. But just in the second half, was terrible. And I got to do a better job of helping the guys out in the second half and the fourth quarter. So, it’s nothing anybody did. But honestly, it’s on me, you know. More focus in closing the game.”
George led the Clippers with 30 points, nine in the fourth quarter, when he did all he could to help his team try to stay with the Magic.
With Markelle Fultz scoring 28 points and Wendell Carter Jr. contributing 27 points and 12 rebounds, the Magic swept the two-game season series from the Clippers.
Fultz had 12 points in the fourth quarter, driving and slashing to the basket in shooting four for four from the field. Carter had 12 points in the fourth, dunking and shooting five for seven from the field and two for three from three-point range.
“We gave up  in the fourth, held them to under 20  in the third. That's just a big gap,” George said. “I thought with them spreading the floor, it gave them a ton of spacing and we didn't finish rotations in that fourth.”
Perhaps the biggest play in the fourth occurred after George made a three-pointer to pull the Clippers to within two points late in the game.
Yet as they did the entire fourth quarter, the Magic answered, getting a three-pointer from Franz Wagner, who had 20 points, with 40.7 seconds remaining that put the Clippers down five and left them scrambling the rest of the way.
George scored again for the Clippers, but Fultz answered with a layup and made two free throws to end the game.
“I thought they made some timely shots,” Craig said. “We got caught rotating, so there were some middle drives. There were some opportunities where we could have been hunting for some unders, and then they ended up getting in the paint and then again, their pace too.”
The Clippers complete a set of back-to-back games Sunday night at Portland, and the assumption is Leonard will play against the Trail Blazers.
“He’s out tonight,” Lue said pregame. “That’s all I know.”
There was no word on the availability of Lue on Sunday.
When Leonard doesn’t play, George said, more falls on him to be the leader.
“I just know I gotta do my job and be more aggressive, and just try to keep us poised,” George said. “That's really the adjustments that goes into when Kawhi's out. Just be a little bit more aggressive.”
The Clippers have 11 regular-season games left. They are fifth in the West, 1½ games behind the Phoenix Suns and one game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks.
The Clippers have two sets of back-to-back games after Sunday — at Memphis on March 31 and at New Orleans on April 1, and at Portland on April 8 and at Phoenix on April 9 in the season finale.
Obviously, it’s not known if Leonard will play in any back-to-back games.
Either way, the Clippers have to adjust in his absence.
“There’s no excuse for tonight,” Westbrook said. “We just didn’t close the game like we were supposed to, make the right plays like we needed to.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.