The Clippers were 1-4 last season while navigating life without Kawhi Leonard, when a seven-game winning streak began on Nov. 1, 2021, thanks to Reggie Jackson’s game-winning basket.
One year later, how things haven’t changed.
Their record standing at 2-4 while learning to play without Leonard — again — the Clippers watched as Paul George’s game-winning shot fell Oct. 31 to beat Houston, a finish that was part comeback, part catharsis. The Clippers have won three straight, a run that has allowed the team “to breathe a little bit,” George told The Times after Friday’s 113-106 win in San Antonio improved them to 5-4.
“We’re in that space of enjoying playing together, having fun right now and I think that’s what’s getting us over the hump,” George said after scoring 32 points against the Spurs. “That’s progress. Because we were, I think, pressing a little much. I think we were a little tight. I think we’re playing a little looser, we’re playing a little freer.
“As always there’s stuff we need to tighten up and get better at, execution, defense, the fluidity on offense, but I think in terms of having fun, competing? I think we’re starting to take that identity on as a team.”
That identity this season was built around elite three-point shooting and defense. Like every other expectation around the Clippers this season, that was quickly upended by the surprise loss of Leonard to tightness in his right knee he first felt Oct. 25 in Oklahoma City, 16 months after his surgery to repair a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament.
T.O. Souryal, who served as the Dallas Mavericks’ team doctor for 22 years and is a former two-term president of the NBA’s association of team physicians, told The Times in October that stiffness typically means swelling in the knee. Though Souryal cautioned that it is difficult to gauge the extent of the setback because the team has not described who performed the surgery or the type of procedure, “it is a tad unexpected to experience stiffness at 16 months” after the operation, he said.
Leonard wanted to play the night he felt stiffness, just as he has wanted to travel with the team on its road trips since, but the Clippers have not allowed him to do either out of caution.
Leonard is “just frustrated after putting all the work [in] the last 15 months and to get to this point and not being where he wants to be physically,” coach Tyronn Lue said Monday. “But he is getting better.”
Although victories against Houston and San Antonio — teams expected to be playing for the draft lottery — aren’t a salve for all of the Clippers’ issues, the team believes its past week has shown it is getting better at navigating the surprise setback that has kept Leonard from slowly building up his minutes off the bench.
“We’re used to it,” center Ivica Zubac said with a wry smile that hinted at last season’s injury-riddled lineups. “We’re used to that. We can’t have nice things, we can’t all be on the floor at the same time but we got a lot of talented guys. I think PG’s leading the way, he’s playing great, he’s leading us on the floor and we got a bunch of guys around him that are talented that they know how to play.”
Told before the season to play aggressively even if he’s paired with Leonard, George has taken on an even greater workload without his co-star, producing the league’s 10th-highest usage rate in the six games since Leonard’s absence and scoring 31% of all the Clippers’ points in that span.
The Clippers are 3-3 since Oct. 25 and in that span still rank third worst by scoring 103 points per 100 possessions while also ranking near the bottom in assist-to-turnover ratio. Yet their defense ranks fourth best in that span, allowing opponents to shoot just 57% within five feet of the rim, the third-stingiest mark in the league, while grabbing the fifth-best rate of defensive rebounds, after allowing offensive rebounds had haunted their rocky start. That effort has been anchored by Zubac, whose 4.5 blocks per 100 possessions is more than double his rate from either of the past two seasons. Zubac is averaging 10.0 points and 11.6 rebounds.
“He’s been playing at the elite level right now,” Lue said.
Lue reiterated Friday that his most pressing challenge is getting his reserves to play “the right way,” and hold onto leads, after yet another — this time, 17 points — was surrendered in Friday’s first half to the Spurs. Some of that is substitution patterns, with Lue saying he wants to remove Zubac earlier in first quarters to later pair him with reserves and backup point guard John Wall, who thrives on playing pick-and-roll offense with a big man.
Some of it also is shot selection. Multiple passes setting up an open look? Lue wants that shot taken. But “we can’t fall into the trap of just taking the first early quick shot,” he said. The bench unit’s selection Friday “wasn’t good” at times, Lue said.
Wall said the rally from a 10-point deficit to beat the Spurs on the road showed “growth from the team” — but noted that allowing a 17-point lead to disappear showed the issues that haven’t gone away.
“We got to do a better job as a team knowing tendencies of what teams want to do,” Wall said. “We gave up too many backdoor cuts and overhelping too much, so just the little simple s— that, we could be better at.”
The Clippers could be closer to whole soon. Forward Robert Covington, who missed two games to health and safety protocols, is cleared to participate again and guard Luke Kennard flew back to Los Angeles with the team, a hopeful sign after he left Friday’s game with chest discomfort.
“We’re dealing with some problems with guys — out of our control stuff,” George said. “But we’re figuring it out. I think people are stepping up. Amir [Coffey] is coming in, playing some big minutes for us. Figuring it out and again, [I] keep saying it, it feels different on the court right now.”
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
On the air: TV: KTLA; Radio: 570, 1330
Update: The availability of Robert Covington could be significant Sunday, even if any return would likely happen under a minutes limit. Covington’s perimeter defense would be helpful against Utah (7-3), which has derived a league-high 38% of its points from three-pointers.