LOS ANGELES – The official word came down at 12:45 p.m. on Thursday when the Clippers updated their injury report for Game 1 of the first round series against the Phoenix Suns on Twitter.
Kawhi Leonard – Right knee sprain
Paul George – Sprained right knee
On a day when Twitter did away with legacy blue verification check marks and fake accounts were popping up left and right with misinformation, the hope was this was a bad joke.
The Clippers were already playing without George, who is expected to miss the entire first round, but Leonard was picking up where he left off before he tore his right ACL in the postseason two years ago. We were once seeing “Playoff Kawhi” with Leonard averaging 34.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 6 assists through the first two games of the Clippers’ first round series against the Phoenix Suns. He was shooting 55% from the field, 60% from three and was a lockdown defender on the other end of the floor.
“Playoff Kawhi” is arguably the most complete basketball player we have seen since Michael Jordan, and we were once again seeing it on full display after two years.
And then we weren’t.
Just like that, it was robbed from the Clippers and anyone who loves watching basketball in a blink of an eye.
Mos fans found out about the injury on their way to the game, some found out at the arena, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue admits he didn’t get the official word until right before shootaround.
“I mean, it’s very deflating,” Lue said following the Clippers’ 129-124 loss to the Suns to put them in a 2-1 series hole. “I think more so for Kawhi because you have a guy who’s coming off ACL (surgery), hasn’t missed a rehab session, eats right, eats clean, does everything he can for his body, works extremely hard to get to this point. Then you have something like this happen. So, it’s tough for him, for all the work that he puts in. I feel bad for him.”
Lue looked understandably dejected following the game. Last year, he coached a Clippers team without Leonard all the way to the play-in tournament only to lose George hours before an elimination game. Two years ago, he lost Leonard as the team fought to advance to the franchise’s first conference finals. Just when Lue thinks he has the Clippers on the doorstep of greatness he loses one or both of his stars.
“Our guys have been through a lot this year, the last two years,” Lue said. “For us to compete to get to the point where we made the Playoffs, we’re feeling pretty good outside of having P.G. out, like I said, when this happens, it’s a blow. Nothing we can do about it.”
The Clippers did everything they could to win Game 3 and steal back the momentum that had been robbed from them following losing Game 2 and losing Leonard just hours before the game. Normal Powell scored 42 points and Russell Westbrook added 30 points, 12 rebounds and 8 assists. The Clippers were within three points with less than two minutes remaining in the game but could not overcome the deficit, following to 3-10 this season when playing without Leonard and George.
Will Leonard play in Game 4 on Saturday at 12:30 p.m.? “I don’t know,” Lue said.
If he’s not cleared less than 48 hours after he was ruled out, can the Clippers find a way to beat Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, DeAndre Anyton and the Suns without their two superstars?
After doing his best to come up with the right answers in Game 3, Lue was out of explanations as he walked off the press conference stage on Thursday night.
“We’ll be ready,” Lue said. “We’ll have the same energy. We’ll play the same way. We’ll attack and be aggressive. Just hopefully — I can’t say that. Yeah, I’m done, man.”
The hopes is the same isn’t true for Leonard in this series.