NBA playoffs: Clippers were built to boom, but have seemingly gone bust in Kawhi Leonard, Paul George era

LOS ANGELES — The Clippers took a timeout a little past midway through the fourth quarter, with Ty Lue putting together a game plan held together by duct tape, a resurgent superstar and probably the Almighty against a Phoenix Suns team he desperately wanted to exploit.

Russell Westbrook was continuing his unexpected rebirth, an exhausting whirling dervish on both ends. But across the way, Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Chris Paul were hitting shot after shot to help the favored Suns pull away to take a 3-1 lead in the first round of the NBA playoffs with a 112-100 win at Arena on Saturday afternoon.

Westbrook wasn’t alone, but had to shoulder a burden of leadership no one would’ve expected when the Clippers picked him up off the following his trade to the Utah Jazz and eventual buyout.

“I try to instill confidence in our guys,” Westbrook said following his 37-point, 6-rebound, 4-assist performance. “As part of leadership, you got to make sure you rally around the guys you have. Try to instill confidence in them through the toughest moment. Not when things are going well, but the toughest moments.”

Westbrook was a gamble that unexpectedly paid off, answering questions about his future in the NBA. If this version was paired with onejust one — of their injured superstars, this series and these playoffs could look a lot different.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Russell Westbrook drives to the basket between Phoenix Suns guards Devin Booker and Josh Okogie during Game 4 of their first-round NBA playoffs series at Arena in Los Angeles on April 22, 2023. (Harry How/Getty Images)

“Our margin for error is very slim,” Lue said. “You don’t want to lose at this point. I’m more mad than they are, for a couple reasons. We feel like we let two get away, but they’re a great team, great players, great coaches.”

The margin being slim sits on the lip of a bold move that hasn’t worked out.

With the Clippers taking on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in free agency some four years ago, the NBA world was turned upside down. In the minds of so many, it was supposed to be them on the other side of this — superstar power overshadowing a group of try-hards doing their very best, playing above their heads yet watching deficits increase as critical moments of playoff games approach.

It’s been anything but, and the Clippers are one loss away from having to truly reevaluate their entire plan after so many near-misses and what-ifs. That’s what their brand has become on some levels, despite their best efforts to turn the tide.

It wasn’t so much that the Clippers were in the shadow of arguably the biggest tidal wave in sports, the Lakers. It was also striking that they barely could put together their own footprint in the NBA landscape despite the attractive real estate.

So when Leonard and George, both with injury histories, wanted to come, they had to jump at it. Again, they had to take this chance.

A pair of two-way wings very much near the top of their individual games in a league that values the position more than any other? Two players who could play off each other seamlessly because there was an established pecking order going in that Leonard would be the first option and closer and George would be the all-everything swingman comfortable in the second spot.

But so far, the two have sat more games than they’ve played. Every year the dynamic Leonard has started a Clippers season in uniform, there’s been the quiet belief that maybe the Clipper curse would be snapped, that they’d take center stage — not just in Los Angeles but in the NBA world.

Leonard was again in street clothes for Game 4 of the Clippers’ series against the Suns, having played two tantalizingly excellent games and sitting the last two with a right knee sprain. Initially termed a day-to-day injury, there’s no timetable for his return. With the Clippers one game away from elimination, it’s hard to predict a miraculous return to help pull his team from the depths.

George was already out for the series, courtesy of an awkward fall he suffered in the final weeks of the regular season, spraining his right knee. A prevailing thought was if the Clippers were to somehow survive the first round, they would be at full tilt with George returning and Leonard back at full rhythm.

Kawhi Leonard and Paul George came to the Clippers with hopes of making a run at a championship. Instead, both have been hampered by injuries at the most crucial times for Los Angeles. (Harry How/Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George came to the Clippers with hopes of making a run at a championship. Instead, both have been hampered by injuries at the most crucial times for Los Angeles. (Harry How/Getty Images)

They’ve been snakebitten unlike any other franchise during this time. They were arguably the league’s best team in the 2020 bubble, but self-destructed in the second round, blowing a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference semifinals.

In 2021, this version of Leonard — not the sports car version that terrorized the league in 2017 or even the patched-up version that led the Raptors to the 2019 title — was quite possibly still the best player in the league.

The Clippers were so good, unbeknownst to the basketball world, they withstood Leonard’s ACL tear in the second round to Utah and leaned on George, who carried them to within two games of the NBA Finals.

That was possibly their best chance until this chance.

Unfair or not, Leonard is the face of load management in the NBA. All-Stars play fewer games than ever, and due to Leonard’s careful approach with his various injuries, the perception hits him the hardest.

The lack of clarity surrounding his injuries adds to the negative perceptions and frustrations, but it’s consistent with how he has routinely gone about his business.

His right knee sprain, the latest ailment, comes on the heels of the ACL injury that caused him to miss all of last season. When he’s played, he’s been excellent — downright transcendent.

Leonard is the quietest candidate for the 50-40-90 club, a room visited by so very few. In 161 regular season games as a Clipper, he’s shot 50% from the field, 40% from 3 and 88% from the line.

But he’s missed nearly the equivalent of two full seasons and what’s worse, had his desire to play questioned since his acrimonious exit from the San Antonio Spurs in 2018. If one takes away the perception of his injuries and just addresses them head on, the Clippers will have to ask themselves how long they want to stay in business with their star player, who through no fault of his own can’t stay healthy for sustained periods.

Leonard and George each have one more guaranteed year on their current contracts, at $45.6 million followed by player options in 2024-25. George will be 33 in a matter of days, while Leonard will be 32 in June.

The Clippers will open a new building in Inglewood at the start of the 2024-25 season, a sprawling, ambitious project headed by team owner Steve Ballmer called the Intuit Dome. It would be best for all if there were stars around for the real ribbon-cutting on the floor that October.

But what does the future hold?

Lue was upbeat, humming and singing right before the start of Game 4. He didn’t seem worn down by all the uncertainty, but as a championship coach, one has to wonder how long he’s up for this.

The mad scientist rarely gets a chance to deploy his confounding lineups other than in desperation as opposed to having supreme talent to go along with it.

However it ends, there are far more questions to ask about a future that can still be so bright, even if the direction is somewhat altered.

Today’s players are playing longer than ever — Leonard and George are younger than Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, who are still reasonable facsimiles of their best selves. But can they be active long enough to maximize it?

“I’m disappointed Kawhi is injured again, more so than the matchup,” Durant said following Game 4. “It’s always fun playing against an all-time great. I don’t know Kawhi that well, but he seemed like he loves the game, loves to play, to hoop at this stage, especially around the playoffs. It’s fun — not fun, but it’s a challenge getting a chance to compete against someone like Kawhi.”

Durant corrected himself again, saying playing against Leonard is nerve-wracking. Imagine how those nerves work when you’re employing the man.