Clippers believe they ‘have more than enough’ without Kawhi

Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes about the LA Clippers believing they have enough to beat Dallas without Kawhi Leonard.

LOS ANGELES — The LA Clippers exerted their dominance with James Harden’s step-back 3s, Paul George’s pull-up jumpers and Ivica Zubac’s paint presence. As the Clippers demonstrated in their 109-97 win in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday, they could manage just fine without Kawhi Leonard.

“We still have more than enough,” George said. “Obviously, Kawhi puts us well over the top. But we still got more than enough.”

The Clippers also revealed their vulnerability with Leonard’s absence, Luka Doncic’s aggressiveness and Kyrie Irving’s late-game outburst. The fourth-seeded Clippers may have retained home-court advantage against the No. 5 Mavericks. Only moments after touting the Clippers’ depth without Leonard, however, his co-star conceded the team’s long-term fortunes hinge on whether Leonard can recover from a right knee injury that has sidelined him for the final eight regular-season games and the Clippers’ playoff opener.

“Kawhi obviously is the piece we do need if we plan on winning it all and getting to where we want to get to,” George said. “But we’re going to hold it down for him until he’s ready to return. We feel comfortable with where we’re at.”

The Clippers had plenty of reason to feel comfortable with their Game 1 performance.They lacked Leonard’s two-way presence, but they made up for it by ensuring what Clippers coached Tyronn Lue called a “total team win.”

Zubac received early paint touches en route to 20 points and 15 rebounds. Clippers forward Amir Coffey started in Leonard’s place and embraced the unenviable task with forcing Doncic into an inefficient scoring performance (33 points on 11-for-26 shooting) so that the Clippers’ star players could save their energy on offense. Harden (28), George (22) and Russell Westbrook (13) all hit timely shots with the same efficiency and aggressiveness that Leonard has often shown.

“I can still score with the best of them,” Harden said. “My role for this team is just generating really good shots and making my job easier. And then when my number to score is called, I’ll score the basketball. Obviously Kawhi is out. So my playmaking and me, my value is going to go up a little bit more.”

The Clippers acquired Harden shortly before into the 2023-24 season partly to offset any potential Leonard absence after his ACL injury in his right knee (2021 playoffs) and his meniscus tear in the same knee (2023 playoffs) disrupted the team’s playoff aspirations. Leonard has played 68 regular-season games in 2023-24 in what marks the most games logged in a single season since joining the Clippers five years ago. Just as the Clippers planned to gear up for the playoffs with their healthy star, they experienced the final eight regular-season games learning how to play without Leonard again. Though the Clippers went 4-4 during that time, they secured signature wins over Denver, Cleveland and Phoenix.

“Knowing how we have to play was huge for us to see,” Lue said. “It was a blessing in disguise a little bit. We all know that we need Kawhi. But with him missing those eight or nine games, we found a way that we had to play until he got back. That was good for us.”

What isn’t good for the Clippers?

They may have to become used to this reality for all, if not most of the team’s playoff run. Lue expressed uncertainty whether Leonard could miss Game 2 on Tuesday and possibly beyond. He said the medical staff has not determined whether Leonard can participate in a contact practice, an understood prerequisite Leonard must complete before playing for the first time since March 31.

Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, recently stressed to reporters that his right ACL and right meniscus are structurally in place. Leonard watched Game 1 on the bench in street clothes without needing any assistance. Yet, Frank described Leonard’s inflammation as “unpredictable.”

Only the Clippers and Leonard truly know the severity of his injury. But their caginess surely should raise antennas. Keep in mind that the Clippers listed Leonard as day-to-day both when he injured his knee in the second round of the 2021 playoffs against Utah and when he injured it again following Game 2 of their first-round series last year against Phoenix. Leonard then wound up having surgery to repair a torn ACL in the middle of the 2021 NBA Finals. Leonard then had a non-invasive procedure to repair his meniscus shortly after the Clippers’ first-round exit.

Though Lue said that Leonard “is progressing” after completing shooting drills during last week’s practice, their practice schedule has become condensed. The Clippers will practice Monday before Game 2 on Tuesday. They then could practice both Wednesday and Thursday before Game 3 on Friday in Dallas.

Will that soil the Clippers’ playoff hopes?

Consider that the Clippers closed out against Utah before losing to the Suns in 2021 Western Conference Finals without Leonard. Or that the Clippers lost their first-round matchup to Phoenix last season. In fairness, though, the Clippers have more continuity than they did in the 2021 postseason. They have a healthy George, who missed last year’s post-season run with a right knee injury. And they acquired Harden this season partly in case they experienced major injuries elsewhere.

“It’s not like we felt we weren’t going to win because we don’t have Kawhi,” George said. “We still feel confident and comfortable regardless of who’s suiting up and who’s not suiting up. We know how good we can be. We’re greatly coached. We got a great locker room.”

Nonetheless, the Clippers rightfully recognized that they remain vulnerable without their star player.

Lue lamented the free-throw discrepancy between the Clippers (11-for-13) and the Mavericks (25-for-33), the team’s fouls (22) and its spacing. The Clippers anticipated the Mavericks will make adjustments both with their effort and schemes. And after living up to their motto to play with “all hands” on deck for one game, it appears more difficult to maintain that intensity both against a motivated Mavericks team and presumably tougher opponents in later playoff rounds.

“We can’t be complacent with how we played today,” George said, “knowing what they have in their locker room.”

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