Another Kawhi Leonard injury hovers over everything, but Clippers find a way to even series



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DALLAS — When LA Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard wasn’t on the floor two hours before the start of Game 4 against the Dallas Mavericks, something didn’t feel right. Leonard’s pregame shooting routine has been meticulously choreographed. Free throws, left block, face-ups.

But Sunday morning with the clock counting down before tip-off, Leonard didn’t take his usual place on the court. He was absent.

Answers would come when Clippers’ president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank made himself available to discuss Leonard’s inactive status for Sunday’s game, and his now uncertain timetable going forward.

When’s he coming back? Can’t tell you a timeline,” Frank said before Game 4. “I wish I had a crystal ball. It will just basically (be) until he can show that he can make all the movements that he needs to make, that’s when he will come back.”

There was no “acute injury” as Frank put it, but Leonard simply did not look like himself.

It became painfully obvious how the organization concluded that the two-time NBA Finals MVP needed to be shut down again. Friday night in Game 3, James Harden stole a bad Luka Dončić pass midway through the third quarter and got the ball over to Paul George. Leonard, laboring through right knee inflammation that caused him to miss the last eight games of the regular season and Game 1, was jogging on the fast break.

George instinctively threw a pass toward the rim for Leonard, which seemed like the right basketball play at the time. In this moment, though, considering the condition of Leonard’s knee? It seemed risky.

“I had to go get it for him,” Leonard said of the alley-oop that tested his athleticism during a game that otherwise made Leonard look like a shell of himself.

 

Who knows when Leonard is going to catch another pass from George, or when he will dunk again. But the Clippers did what they had to do without him on Sunday as they beat the Mavericks 116-111 to tie the best-of-seven-series in Dallas 2-2 while reclaiming home-court advantage.

After struggling with fouls in the first three games of the series, Paul George scored 26 of his 33 points in a foul-free first half that saw the Clippers lead by as many as 31 points. His seventh 3-pointer gave the Clippers the lead. Add in Harden utilizing a new high-volume floater game, making six such shots in the fourth quarter alone as part of a 33-point performance. The Clippers are now 2-0 in the series without Leonard playing, taking massive first-half leads and holding on to squeak out wins.

There will be a lot of discussion about the fact Leonard’s injuries have defined this era of Clippers basketball, and that another one is threatening to define the Clippers’ 2024 postseason. That discussion will spin forward, given how troublesome Leonard’s durability is with his contract extended into the Intuit Dome era commencing next season. Game 4 was the 13th postseason or Play-In Tournament game Leonard has missed for the Clippers. He didn’t miss any in his first postseason with the team in 2020, but Leonard and George were unable to close the deal on a 3-1 conference semifinals lead.

There’s an empathy for Leonard, who has been unable to see his body get through a postseason in four years. Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue called what Leonard is going through “devastating.”

“(He’s) worked hard to get to this point, to a place he wants to be in the playoffs,” Lue said. “And then to be hurt and not be able to be 100 percent and play the way he’s capable of playing, it’s very frustrating for him. I feel bad for him.”

However, George and Harden both understand the assignment. They’re the stars, going up in a series with Dončić and Kyrie Irving. They’ve also seen the blueprint and know what it takes in order to beat the Mavericks.

“We got to focus on what we have,” Harden said. “We are going to let you guys talk about if Kawhi plays or not. I think our focus is, if Kawhi plays, obviously we know how great (he is), he’s our best player. I mean, but if he doesn’t, we still got to go out there and win a game. And I think tonight gave us confidence.”

The Clippers have scored 408 points through four games of this series, while the Mavericks have scored 405. When Leonard has been off the floor, the Clippers have outscored Dallas by 15 points. It’s been a close series, one that will have to be decided in six or seven games. How do the Clippers prepare?

“As if it’s a whole new game,” George said of the tied series. “Prepare as if it’s Game 1. Not get too high about this win. Go home, try to take care of business. But just take it one game at a time.”

That’s the kind of poise and mindset the Clippers need after another gut-punch of not having their franchise cornerstone. The Clippers took body blows from the Mavericks with Leonard, and fell into a series hole. Leonard’s absence and uncertain status caves LA’s ceiling, yet again. But in the meantime, they can only control what they can and give themselves — and Leonard — a chance to come back.

(Photo of Leonard: David Dow / NBAE via Getty Images)





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