Clippers face unwinnable situation with Leonard

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes the Clippers are on the brink of elimination and an uncertain future with Kawhi Leonard.

LOS ANGELES — As the Clippers fall closer toward playoff elimination, they have wrestled with two unsettling developments.

The Clippers face ongoing uncertainty on when and even if Kawhi Leonard can heal enough from a right knee injury that has sidelined him for three of the team’s five post-season games.

“We’re not sure when he’s coming back,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “It’s a day-to-day thing.”

The Clippers also have displayed dueling identities during their first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks. For two games, they have shown they can win without Leonard. For two games, they have struggled with integrating him back into the lineup.

And in their 123-93 Game 5 loss to Dallas on Wednesday at Arena, the Clippers demonstrated none of this seems sustainable after suffering their largest margin of defeat in franchise playoff history.

“We just didn’t play well, all around defensively, offensively,” Lue said. “We just didn’t play a good game.”

No, they didn’t.

No one steps up for Clippers

Just when it appeared the Clippers could further limit Mavericks star Luka Doncic while nursing a sprained right knee and congestion, he took his game to another level. Doncic reeled off 35 points on 14-for-26 shooting along 10 assists and seven rebounds.

Just when it appeared the Clippers could lean on Paul George taking over as the team’s leader, he appeared overwhelmed with the Mavericks’ swarming defense. Paul finished with only 15 points on a 4-for-13 clip and 11 rebounds with nearly as many assists (four) as turnovers (three).

Just when it appeared the Clippers could rely on James Harden to rise above his past playoff failures as he did in a Game 4 win, he shrank from the moment. Harden finished with only seven points while shooting 2 of 12 from the field and 1 of 7 from deep with four turnovers blemishing his seven assists.

Just as it has been all playoff series, Russell Westbrook failed to make a positive impact. He posted six points while shooting 2 for 11 from the field and 0 for 3 from deep.

Theoretically, Leonard could become the team’s savior should he return for Game 6. Realistically, he may not be available. Practically, his presence could just lead to more disruptions on why the team adjusts playing around its limited star.

“We know how we want to play, no matter who is on the floor,” said Clippers center Ivica Zubac, who added 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting. “So, obviously we’re missing one of the best players in the world.

“But we still got a lot of talent on the team. We got a lot of great players, and we know what we to do. We showed it. We won two games. We just got to be way better than that.”

The Clippers maintained that optimism for two reasons: They eliminated Dallas in a seven-game first-round series in 2021, overcoming a 3-2 deficit with a decisive Game 6 win in Dallas. And the Clippers already won Game 1 at home and Game 4 on the road in this series without Leonard.

Why can’t the Clippers overcome the odds again and ensure at least another home playoff game at Arena before leaving for Intuit Dome next season?

“Every game is different in the playoffs,” Lue said. “No matter if you win by one or you win by 50, it’s a win. No letdowns. We know we can play better.”

Yet, this pathway does not look realistic.

Shades of 2021?

So what if the Clippers beat Dallas in Game 6 to force a Game 7 in 2021? Unlike two years ago, Doncic can lean on Kyrie Irving and a much stronger supporting cast to ensure the Mavericks close out this series.

The Clippers won Game 6  that year after Leonard posted a playoff-career high 45 points, a development that seems implausible given that he will either return in limited fashion or remain sidelined. Technically, George, Harden and Westbrook should carry that burden, but they hardly showed promising signs in Game 5.

George became dominant in a Game 4 win in Dallas with 33 points on 11-for-19 shooting along with eight assists, six rebounds and four steals. He looked more passive in Game 5. And though he theoretically could bounce back just as quickly in Game 6, here’s guessing that Dallas will play with the same kind of defensive aggression in a potential close-out game.

“I could’ve done a better job of just making plays, taking what the defense gave me,” George said. “There were a lot of opportunities for kickouts that I missed that I thought we could’ve taken advantage of.”

The same could be said for Harden and Westbrook, both of whom did not speak to reporters following their poor performances.

After posting 33 points while shooting 12 for 17 from the field and 4 for 5 from 3-point range along with seven assists in the Clippers’ Game 4 win, Harden received praise for how he played with more aggression, unleashed his recently developed floater and matured since his previous playoff struggles in Houston, Brooklyn and Philadelphia. In Game 5? For a league-leading 13th time in his NBA post-season career, Harden shot under 20% while taking at least 10 shots.

“He’s allowed to have a bad game,” Lue said. “He didn’t shoot the ball well. They tried to get up and pressure him a little bit, which we didn’t handle like we have in the first four games. He played bad. It’s possible. He didn’t play well.

“So I got to do a better job at getting him in better situations and then be ready for Game 6 because I know he’ll be better.”

Westbrook also showed his worse qualities. With exception to the Clippers’ Game 1 win, Westbrook has struggled with making a positive contribution in nearly every way. Since that victory, Westbrook has shot a combined 6 for 35 from the field. He has not stayed on the court either because of an ejection (19 minutes in Game 3 loss) or because of his own performance (16 minutes in Game 5 loss).

“Us not being able to get stops and get out in transition and attack early in transition really hurts us,” Lue said. “So he’s been good. Just keep attacking the basket. Keep making the right play.

“I got to do a better job at getting him in better situations. When we’re not getting stops when he’s on the floor, then it’s hard to be who he is.”

Lue deserves kudos for supporting his players and deflecting the blame. Harden and Westbrook deserve scrutiny for their poor play and for not taking ownership afterwards.

Undoubtedly, it matters more on how everyone responds with actions than words. Yet, the Clippers have not put themselves in a position to succeed.

After having an all-hands-on deck approach to ensure a Game 1 win without Leonard, the Clippers rightfully sensed how unrealistic to would be to repeat that formula for the entire series. Instead of ensuring Leonard completed a full-contact practice before returning, however, the Clippers integrated their star player in Game 2 with a limited workload.

Neither Leonard nor his teammates appeared comfortable. The same thing happened in Game 3 when Leonard showed more discomfort with his right knee. The Clippers leaned on their depth without Leonard once again for a Game 4 win, but it helped that Doncic looked limited with his right ankle injury.

In Game 5, Doncic appeared more than capable with overcoming his ailments while the Mavericks played at a faster pace to throw the Clippers off balance.

Clippers’ options are few

That leaves the Clippers with two less than ideal adjustments: Hope that Leonard has healed enough that he can both return and play effectively in Game 6. The Clippers have maintained he doesn’t have any structural issues that will require procedure, which he had to address his torn ACL in his right knee (2021-2002) and a torn meniscus in the same knee (2023 playoffs).

“When he’s feeling the good and medical says he’s cleared to go,” Lue said, “that’s what we’ll do.”

Since that appears uncertain, the Clippers’ other star players will have to show they can handle that role. George has fulfilled that responsiblity during his entire career in Indiana (2010-17) and with the Clippers following Leonard’s ACL injury (2021 Western Conference Finals; 2021-22 season). Harden carried that load in Houston (2012-21). Same thing with Westbrook after Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City (2016-19).

At this point in all of their careers, though, none of them have proven consistent with elevating their game during a high-stakes moment.

“I don’t feel that pressure anymore,” George said. “I’m not out there to prove nothing to anybody. But what I do want to do is just go and show up for my teammates. Leave everything on the floor, like I said, and just try to be a leader and live with the results. I’m going to play as hard as I can Game 6, and give us the best chance I can give them to go and get a win in Dallas.”

With exception to Harden and Westbrook, the Clippers said all the right things following their Game 5 loss. They didn’t display any encouraging signs in Game 5, however, that suggest they have what it takes to extend the series.

 Mark Medina is Lakers/Clippers columnist for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads.