PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Perhaps Clippers coach Tyronn Lue simply wanted to put the idea into the universe.
“There’s always a possibility,” Lue said. Just a few hours later, however, the Clippers confirmed what most expected. Leonard and George would miss Game 5; leaving the Clippers to play the biggest game of their season without their two biggest stars.
When it comes to Leonard and George, however, there’s always uncertainty. Just like it has been for the entire 2022-23 season, the Clippers are entering their most important game of the season without their two star players. They have done so once too many times already.
“He’s definitely hurt. It’s not load management where he’s taking time off,” Lue said about Leonard. “He’s shown in the past that he’s played through injuries in the playoffs. If it’s something he can’t play through, then it has to be pretty serious. We’re not talking about he’s sitting out because of load management or he’s tired. It’s nothing like that. It’s an actual thing.”
While George has completed shooting and running drills within the past week, Leonard has yet to practice since aggravating his right knee in the Clippers’ Game 2 loss to Phoenix. Nonetheless, Leonard and George have at least been healthy enough to be around the Clippers instead of spending all of their time in the trainer’s room. Both have walked around the arena without any crutches or walking boots. They have also sat on the bench during games in street clothes.
“It’s meaningful that they’re on the bench and in the locker room,” Clippers center Mason Plumlee said. “Obviously, we would love to have them out there. But not all players come out and support and make the trip and that, so it’s been great to have them.”
Without Leonard and George offering two-way value as prolific scorers and versatile wing defenders, however, the Clippers have remained in a vulnerable position.
They are trying to lean on their depth and resiliency to overcome the Suns’ top-heavy lineup that includes two elite scorers (Kevin Durant, Devin Booker), a proven playmaker (Chris Paul) and a versatile big man (Deandre Ayton).
“It’s a tough situation to be in with our two main guys out. But I love our guys in the locker room,” Lue said. “I have confidence. That’s the reason I have confidence because of the guys we have in the locker room. They’re not going to give in. We just clean up a few things, we’re right there.”
What are those few things? The Clippers have listed quite a few.
They want to tire out the Suns’ top-heavy lineup by playing at a fast pace, while decreasing their turnovers per game (14.8).
“We’re playing the way that we want to play,” Plumlee said. “It’s just being a little bit more solid. We’re playing how we want to play. I think we could break through here.”
Lue has given the Clippers a “B” grade for defending with physicality both to disrupt the Suns’ shots and energy levels. Yet, Lue has called for the Clippers to maintain their aggressiveness while reducing their rebounding discrepancy (42.8-38.5) and fouls per contest (23.5).
“We have to clean up a few things,” Lue said.
The Clippers have indicated frustration with the free-throw difference with Phoenix in Game 3 (46-25) and Game 4 (27-10). But Lue has told his players, “Just keep attacking; keep being aggressive.”
“Just keep going. There’s nothing we can really do about it,” Mann said. “I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to get in trouble. There’s nothing you can do; you’ve got to just keep getting to the paint as best you can.”
Lue has received universal respect for how he constantly makes in-game adjustments. He recently started Marcus Morris Sr. at power forward to replace a struggling Nicolas Batum. But the rotation remains subject to change.
“We have to bring everything,” Lue said. “A lot of different things and different adjustments to keep them off balance.”
Lastly, the Clippers have leaned on Russell Westbrook, who has exceeded the Clippers’ expectations with mirroring his All-Star credentials instead of mirroring reckless play that made him a poor fit with the Lakers. Because of the Clippers’ superior shooters and defenders, Westbrook has shown more strengths than weaknesses under a much less glaring spotlight.
“It starts with Russ. He’s going to play the same way, whether I’m on the floor with him or Michael Jordan is on the floor with him,” Lue said. “He gives these guys a belief that we can win. The guys in the locker room that have been through the last couple of years have a belief that we can win as well.”
Still, that may not be enough against Phoenix. As Lue conceded, “our margin for error is very slim” against the Suns’ top-heavy lineup. Perhaps the Clippers receive some cushion with Leonard and George returning. The Clippers’ season could depend on it.