LOS ANGELES – The Clippers’ star moved gracefully without limping or even showing much discomfort. Too bad that Kawhi Leonard walked that way through an arena hallway in street clothes instead of running down the court in a uniform.
“He desperately, desperately wants to play,” said Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations. “This is the playoffs.”
But the playoff excitement over Leonard’s stellar play soon mirrored the regular-season frustration about his health. Because of what the team termed a “right ankle sprain,” the Clippers sat Leonard during their 129-124 loss to the Phoenix Suns in Game 3 of their first-round series on Thursday at Crypto.com arena.
“He’s frustrated,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “His spirits are down.”
And why wouldn’t Leonard feel that way? He stayed sidelined for the entire 2021-22 season while recovering from off-season surgery on the ACL in his right knee. This season, Leonard still missed games to manage his right knee (22) and treat a sprained right ankle (six).
Yet, the Clippers had become encouraged with Leonard’s progress leading into the playoffs. That optimism proved warranted. Leonard helped the Clippers steal Game 1 on the road with 38 points on a 13-for-24 clip along with five rebounds and five assists. The Suns took Game 2, but Leonard still added 31 points on 11-for-20 shooting along with eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals. As Frank said, “the guy is playing at an unbelievably high level” before adding that Leonard “has gotten back to the level he was at, if not better.”
During those encouraging performances, however, Leonard’s health worsened. Frank said that Leonard aggravated his sprained right knee in Game 1 before logging 42 minutes, but the team’s medical staff still considered him healthy enough to play 39 minutes in Game 2. As Frank stressed, “if we weren’t comfortable with him playing, we wouldn’t have.”
The Clippers’ medical staff changed their opinion once, as Frank reported, Leonard’s “symptoms got worse after Game 2.” Lue and his players then learned at morning shootaround on Thursday that Leonard would miss Game 3.
“Hopefully, we get him back sooner than later,” Lue said. “He’s given us everything he’s had this year. I’m optimistic that anything can happen.”
The Clippers offered more vagueness than optimism, though. Lue conceded uncertainty on whether Leonard could play when the Clippers host Game 4 against Phoenix on Saturday (3:30 pm ET, TNT). Frank referred questions to the team’s medical staff on what Leonard needs to complete in his rehab before receiving clearance to play. And Frank simply described Leonard’s timetable as “day-by-day.”
As if the Clippers hadn’t already been dealing with health issues. Just like Leonard, Clippers forward Paul George sat with the team on the bench in street clothes during Game 3. He had already missed the last nine regular-season games as well as Games 1 and 2 while healing his own sprained right knee. George has completed shooting and running drills and posted photos of himself in those workouts Thursday on Instagram. The caption read, “What I WONT do is quit.”
Don’t expect George to walk through that door soon, though, just because the Clippers’ lost their other star player.
“He’s made progress, but his recovery time hasn’t changed because Kawhi is out,” Frank said. “He continues to work his butt off and make progress daily.”
Unfortunately for the Clippers, this has become the soundtrack to their pained history. Forget about when the Clippers mostly became a punchline during the Donald Sterling saga. When Steve Ballmer bought the franchise in 2014, he envisioned he would spend lavishly on championship-contending teams every season. During both the “Lob City (2011-2017) and Leonard-George eras (2019-present), however, the Clippers underachieved for a specific reason.
“The biggest disappointment is easy: people get injured,” Ballmer said during the CAA World Congress of Sports on Tuesday in LA. “Obviously you want to win a championship, but you have to stay healthy.”
That never happened.
After making a game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Clippers’ first-round series against San Antonio in 2015 on an injury hamstring, former Clippers guard Chris Paul missed two games the following series before the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead to Houston. The Clippers experienced first-round exits with Paul nursing an injured right hand (Portland, 2016) and with Blake Griffin hurting his left quad (Utah, 2017).
That marked the end of “Lob City.” Paul departed to Houston in a sign-and-trade. Deandre Jordan signed a one-year deal with Dallas, and this time the Clippers did not convince Jordan to stay. And then the Clippers dealt Blake Griffin to Detroit less than a year after signing him to a max deal and proclaiming him a “Clipper-for-life.”
Following a missed playoff appearance (2017-18), the Clippers challenged the Golden State Warriors to seven games in the first round (2018-19). Leonard and George became impressed enough with former Clippers coach Doc Rivers and the team’s depth. So shortly after Leonard agreed to join the Clippers as a free agent, the Clippers acquired Paul George from Oklahoma City for Shai Gilgeous- Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and five future first-round picks.
The injury bug has since kept biting the Clippers.
When Leonard and George first teamed up in 2019-20, the Clippers missed a combined 114 games due to injuries. While Leonard missed 15 games because of his left knee, George sat for 24 following off-season surgery on both shoulders. The Clippers still finished with the Western Conference’s second-best record. But the Clippers blew a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the second round amid poor chemistry in the bubble, partly because the team’s injuries limited practice time.
The Clippers and Rivers then parted ways before promoting Lue as head coach. But in the 2020-21 season, Lue oversaw a similar hand with Leonard (20 games) and George (18) sitting for various injuries. Once the playoffs started, the Clippers finally looked unstoppable. Then, Leonard injured the ACL in his right knee in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round series against Utah. The Clippers still advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, but they lost to Phoenix in six games without Leonard.
The following season, the Clippers experienced more injury issues. Leonard missed the entire season while rehabbing his right knee. George sat a combined 51 games to treat an injured right elbow. The Clippers then learned the morning of their second play-in game that George tested positive for COVID-19. During his absence, the Clippers labored through a loss to New Orleans and missed the playoffs for the first time in four years.
“You hate to see P.G. and Kawhi go down. But we got to control what we can control,” Lue said. “That’s all we can do – just come out and compete hard every single night.”
No doubt, the Clippers featured Norman Powell (42 points), Russell Westbrook (30), Bones Hyland (20) and Mason Plumlee (10) cracking double figures in Game 3. But that was no match for the Suns’ top-heavy lineup, including Devin Booker (45 points), Kevin Durant (28), Torrey Craig (15), Deandre Ayton (12) and Chris Paul (11).
The Clippers may pride themselves on their depth and resiliency. But that might not be enough against the Suns presuming their top stars stay healthy.
That brings us back to Leonard and George.
The Clippers’ information vacuum could leave fans equally optimistic and pessimistic about when or if their star players will return.
Consider what happened after George suffered an ACL injury to his right knee. After missing the final 4:58 of Game 4 against Utah, Leonard described his knee as “good” before declining to answer any more questions about his health. The Clippers described Leonard’s injury as a “sprained right knee” and listed him as day-to-day without offering any insight about his recovery. About two weeks after the Suns eliminated the Clippers in the West Finals, the Clippers announced that Leonard had surgery.
The Clippers insisted that Leonard’s latest injury is not related to his ACL tear. Still, it cannot be disputed that Leonard injured the same knee that previously had surgery. It also cannot be disputed that Leonard’s injury history has taken an unpredictable turn.
“I feel sorry for Kawhi because he’s worked so hard to get to this point,” Lue said. “We’ve been in this position before, and we’ve just got to control what we can control.”
Mark Medina covers the NBA for The Sporting Tribune. Follow him on Twitter and on Instagram.