Frail Clippers need to start showing up if they want to compete for a title

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 15: Paul George #3 of the LA Clippers looks on from the bench.

Clippers players, including the injured Paul George, watch from the bench during a 121-100 victory over the Houston Rockets at Crypto.com Arena on Sunday. (Sean M Haffey/Getty Images)

On another shorthanded Sunday in Clipper Nation, the locals embraced good news where they could find it.

the injured Paul Georgefor example, briefly left his bench seat and returned to action in the second quarter.

He was throwing T-shirts into the stands.

The injured Marcus Morris Sr., meanwhile, didn’t even need to leave his bench seat to spend the afternoon bouncing around the Crypto.com Arena.

It was his bobblehead day.

In what also qualifies as a victory, the Clippers survived a three-quarter struggle with the worst team in the NBA to finally pull away in the final minutes for a 121-100 victory over the Houston Rockets.

Yay.

The stands are full, the thump is deafening, Chuck the Condor is doing the salsa, everybody is screaming for those dang T-shirts, the Clippers game experience is alive and well.

But, midway through one of the most important seasons in their history, the actual games are a different story.

The supposedly deepest team in the NBA has been incredibly shallow. The supposedly strongest team in the West has embodied frailty.

The Clippers have been so injured, and so careful in nursing those injuries, they’ve just been the Clippers, and it’s getting tiresome.

You can see it in the weary expression of coach Tyronn Luewho, from night to night, literally never knows who is going to show up.

“It’s been tough,” Luc said.

You can feel it in the confusion of the players, who must seemingly adjust to a different style every night because the starting lineup and rotations keep changing.

“It’s a messed-up place to be,” Lue said.

You can hear it in the players’ voices, in their resigned acceptance of this massive wrench that has been thrown into their winter.

“I mean, it’s hard, but, you know you can’t do anything about that,” said Ivica Zubac. “Guys get hurt and we got to give them time to get healthy … we don’t want to rush anyone … it is what it is.”

Here’s what it is: The Clippers are 23-22 and barely in the playoff race. The Clippers have lost seven of their last nine games. The Clippers are 5-13 against teams with a winning record.

Through it all, the Clippers have played four games with a full healthy roster.

Four games.

As Sunday again showed, for every bright spot, there is a shadow. It was Kawhi Leonard‘s fourth straight game at unquestionable full strength — he scored 30 points in 32 minutes, he’s back! — but sidekick George was missing his fifth straight game because of a nagging hamstring.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard passes the ball during the second half against the Houston Rockets on Sunday.

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard passes the ball during the second half against the Houston Rockets on Sunday. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Leonard and George have played just 15 games together, and the Clippers are 9-6 in those games while outscoring opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions.

Fifteen games.

Their full lineup stats are even more startling and sullen.

The Portland Trail Blazers lead the league in the most time played by a single lineup with 445 minutes. The Clippers’ most-used lineup has been together on the court for 163 minutes.

That’s less than three hours in three months.

Five players were missing Sunday, and it took the rest of the roster most of the game to find a flow.

“It’s difficult,” said Leonard of the constant lineup adjustments. “I know it’s difficult for the coaches, guys who come back, they’re on some type of minutes restriction … then the players got to find rhythm with that as well … all we can do is … grind it out.”

This season, more than ever, they need to grind hard.

They not only need to make the playoffs, but need to advance deep in the playoffs, create some serious buzz, step through that window left open by the struggling Lakers, make some noise.

At the end of the first quarter Sunday, the videoboard illustrated why.

There appeared an advertisement baring the soul of a franchise in serious need of some committed love.

“Priority access” was being offered to the Intuit Dome, and you know what that means.

The Clippers’ bold new Inglewood arena is scheduled to open in the fall of 2024, and they need to convince their dedicated fans to move down the freeway, and while their game presentation is relatable and fun, nobody wants to follow a loser.

Leonard and George will be there, as their contracts both stretch through the first season of the new arena. Remember, four years ago, they were hired to lead the way to Inglewood. Yet so far, they have failed.

In their first season together, they imploded in the bubble and blew a three-games-to-one lead in the conference semifinals against Denver.

In their second season, Leonard injured his knee during the playoffs and they lost to Phoenix in the Western Conference finals.

In their third season, Leonard didn’t play and they were swept out of the play-in tournament.

This was the year Leonard was supposed to be healthy, George was supposed to be his equal, their depth was supposed to be astounding, their greatness real.

This was the year when the NBA’s most stocked team seriously competed for an NBA championship.

Amazingly enough, it still can be.

Their players just need to, you know, play.

“I know it’s frustrating to our fans as well,” Lue said. “You want to put a product on the floor where we actually have a chance to win every night.”

Early in the third quarter Sunday, while the Clippers were mucking around and losing against a bunch of wild kids from Houston, the cheers from their generally amiable fan base were interrupted by an outlier.

“C’mon Clippers, wake up!” someone frustratingly shouted from a seat beyond the baseline.

Better yet, show up.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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