The Clippers had some welcome news on Saturday, with the return of star forward Kawhi Leonard to the lineup. Leonard posted 16 points, five rebounds and six assists in 30 minutes, a light sat line by his standards, and the Clippers lost their third straight game, falling to Denver in a critical battle for the No. 3 seed. The loss was the third straight for L.A., and the Nuggets moved up to take control of the third spot, dropping the Clippers to fourth in the West.
But the losing streak and the seeding are not what really matters coming out of Saturday’s game. What matters is that Leonard has now missed 18 games this season, mostly because of the foot, which kept him out for nine of the 10 previous games. And after all that time off, it remains unclear what, exactly, is wrong with Leonard and whether the issue will persist into the playoffs.
The Clippers are calling the injury, only, right foot soreness. Leonard said the foot is feeling better but did not elaborate, and as the Clippers scurry to prep for the playoffs, uncertainty around Leonard (as well as much of the rotation) figures to be a problem down the stretch.
“It was better tonight,” Leonard said. “Obviously, I got to play in the fourth quarter the other night (April 18 vs. Minnesota) as a blowout of the lead, but I’m feeling good. We took partner steps to get me right, to make sure nothing is significantly wrong with me. Like I said, I feel good. I’m back playing. So hopefully, I just keep moving up from here.”
Top Lineup Has Not Played Since March
The Clippers are looking at a tricky situation with both Leonard and their lineup in general. There are only seven games on the schedule before the start of the playoffs, and the team has had very little opportunity to build chemistry.
Serge Ibaka, who had been the starting center, has been out since March 14. Patrick Beverley, the starting point guard, has played only two games since March 11. Ibaka has back trouble and Beverley is now recovering from a hand injury. Paul George has missed 16 games, mostly with a toe problem. In all, the Clippers have played with the quartet of Leonard, George, Beverley and Ibaka all healthy just 19 times this season.
They were 14-5 in those games, which is encouraging. George said familiarity will go a long way toward ironing out any kinks once everyone is healthy, but it has been nearly eight weeks since that grouping has been on the floor together.
“I think the good thing about this is, for the most part, a good group of this team has been together for a little bit,” said George. “The difference is we’re integrating maybe one guy into a lineup, or maybe two guys, the most, into a lineup, at a time, and so the majority of this group has been here. We’ve been playing with each other, so it’s just moreso about whoever is integrated, we’re getting them up to speed and getting them comfortable playing with that group.”
Beverley Back Soon, Ibaka in Doubt
As for Beverley, it does look like his return from a broken bone in his hand is impending.
“If he keeps progressing the way he is, we should be able to see him in the next couple games, hopefully,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said on Saturday.
Ibaka, though, remains uncertain. Lue said Ibaka has been playing some light basketball but is not going full speed yet. With two weeks left in the season, time is running short on getting him back on the floor.
But even when he returns, chemistry will be an issue. That’s just the Clippers’ reality these days.