LOS ANGELES — The LA Clippers tried to do something Saturday afternoon that they haven’t been able to do since December 26: win a basketball game without Kawhi Leonard.
Now, if you’re a casual observer of the league, you might be thinking about how that was a long time ago. How many games have the Clippers been losing without a player who missed all of last year recovering from knee surgery and notoriously does not play on zero days’ rest?
Well, the good news for the Clippers is that Leonard hasn’t missed back-to-back games since returning from an ankle injury on December 5, a road win against the Charlotte Hornets that saw Leonard save the Clippers with a game-winning field goal. The Clippers are 23-14 in games Leonard has played since December 5. The only games Leonard has missed since are half of back-to-back pairs, one game due to illness after a five-game road trip, and one game due to rest at the end of a 16-game, 29-day stretch for the Clippers.
The bad news is that the Clippers entered Saturday’s matinee game against the Orlando Magic with losses in eight of their nine games without Leonard since the two-time NBA Finals MVP last missed a game due to injury (instead of injury management). The lone win was nearly a loss as well, with the Clippers’ garbage time unit needing to rescue a road game on the front end of a back-to-back against the Detroit Pistons on the day after Christmas.
With the Clippers prioritizing conference wins, Leonard was rested against the Eastern Conference’s 13th seed in order to have him ready for the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday night, the Western Conference’s 13th seed. The Clippers started their four-game win streak after Leonard missed the second night of a back-to-back, a road game against the Sacramento Kings that marked their fifth consecutive loss. On Saturday, that four-game win streak was snapped at the hands of the Magic, who started the game on a 9-0 run and scored a season-high tying 39 fourth-quarter points to secure a 113-108 win over the Clippers .
It was the worst fourth quarter of the season for the Clippers. They were outscored by 13 points in the final 12 minutes. The Clippers had new starting point guard Russell Westbrook on the floor for the entire final frame and the entire first quarter. For the first 2:45 of the game and the last 12 minutes of the game, Westbrook was on the floor for the Clippers during stretches where the Magic outscored them by 22 points.
It makes Westbrook an easy mark for the goat of the night for the Clippers, and he readily took the horns after a game in which he was a team-worst minus-15 in a team-high 37:05.
“This one’s on me honestly tonight,” Westbrook said. “I could have been better. Started off good. But just in the second half, it was terrible. And I got to do a better job of helping the guys out in the second half and the fourth quarter. So, it’s nothing anybody did. But honestly, it’s on me, you know. More focus on closing the game.”
Westbrook discussed the start of the game and the reason why it wasn’t a complete disaster for the Clippers. Westbrook helped the Clippers overcome an 11-point first-quarter deficit with a strong quarter. Westbrook had 11 points on 4-of-6 field goals and a 3:1 assist-turnover ratio in the first quarter. He was responsible for 7-of-12 Clippers field goals overall in the opening period.
But Westbrook struggled from there, compiling a 6:5 assist-turnover ratio and only 3 points on 1-of-8 shooting in the final three quarters of the game. Westbrook missed 3-of-4 free throws in the fourth quarter, and Wendell Carter Jr. sent him packing on a critical after-timeout play that resulted in Markelle Fultz attacking absent rim protection for the Magic’s largest lead of the second half.
But to put all of the blame on Westbrook would be foolish, despite Westbrook’s accountability. The Clippers have been awful in non-Leonard games all season, long before Westbrook showed up. All nine players in Tyronn Lue’s rotation had moments where they should have been better against the Magic. But as should always be the case, it starts with Leonard’s co-star, Paul George.
George has had bouts of confounding play this season, mixed in with the brilliance that reminds everyone why he was this team’s All-Star selection. The Clippers won seven of their first 12 games this season without Leonard — all with George holding things down. But the only time the Clippers have won in George’s last seven games without Leonard was the Detroit game, and George was initially white-flagged late in that fourth quarter.
“It didn’t throw us off,” George said of Leonard’s inactive status for Saturday’s Magic game. “We practiced that way and it wasn’t like it was something that just was thrown at us. We knew Kawhi wasn’t going to be in today. So we knew the roles and what we needed to do today.”
Coach Jamahl Mosley’s Magic had shut George down once this season — a December 7 win that saw the Clippers blow an 18-point first-half lead. George only attempted one shot in the paint in that game while missing all seven shots he took after the first quarter. The first half of Saturday’s game was George at his worst, mixing in a quiet first-quarter shot selection (two baskets, two fouls) with three live ball turnovers, then mixing in three more turnovers in the second quarter to go with missing six of seven field goal attempts.
George had no free throw attempts before halftime, only one assist, and all six of his turnovers were of the live ball variety. None were worse than George’s lollipop of a lob to Westbrook that was so bad that Lue decided it would be better to close the first half with Robert Covington in George’s place.
To George’s credit, he responded by scoring 14 points in a full shift third quarter that gave the Clippers an 82-74 lead entering the final quarter. But to George’s discredit, he had no assists after halftime. And though he scored nine of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter, all four of George’s fourth-quarter field goals came after the Magic went on a 9-1 run that resulted in the final lead change of the game.
Beyond Westbrook’s struggles and George’s uneven performance, the Clippers’ defense didn’t come through. Saturday was Ivica Zubac’s 26th birthday, but Carter spoiled the party, and outplayed him, scoring 12 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter. Carter’s 3-point shooting, a career-high matching four 3s, chased Zubac off the floor late. Carter was matched by Fultz scoring 12 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter; the two combined to make 9-of-11 field goals in the final frame.
“A guy like Zubac, he’s really good on the offensive glass; he allows them to get dagger 3s, two or three more opportunities,” Carter told The Athletic after making more 3s after halftime (3-of-6) than the entire Clippers team (2-of-12). “We did a really good job with that.”
The Clippers have had times this season where they went on win streaks, just to get interrupted by Leonard’s absence. After a 3-game win streak in December was snapped against the Phoenix Suns in part due to Leonard and George’s inactivity, Terance Mann shared a frustration that she certainly did n’t sit with him alone.
“It’s definitely real frustrating when we have a good thing going, have a nice little rhythm, figuring stuff out again, about to start a nice little win streak I thought,” Mann said after a loss to the Suns in December. And this happens. But we just got to figure it out from here now.”
Lue has been frustrated by the nature of this season, struggling to hide his problem for load management. And that’s even when it’s a necessary device to get the best out of Leonard.
“I ain’t gonna use the word, but yeah,” Luc said earlier this week when agreeing about medical and scientific advances to preserve players’ health. “It’s two words I don’t want to hear.”
At 37-34, it’s a bad look for Lue’s Clippers that they have been so awful without Leonard. That’s 14 losses in the last 17 games without Leonard. Westbrook’s addition was supposed to help, but Saturday’s loss showed that Westbrook isn’t the solution to winning without Leonard. The Clippers don’t seem to have the mettle of Lue’s first two teams that went 57-62 without Leonard in the lineup, including the postseason and the Play-In.
But the Clippers can get back on a winning streak starting Sunday in Portland. And they might even get to finish the month on a positive note since they don’t have another back-to-back until March 31 and April 1. For now, that’s all they have to look forward to.
“Hell yeah, I can’t wait to play tomorrow after the s— I did tonight,” Westbrook said. “So sleep on it and get ready to get to Portland.”
Good thing Kawhi Leonard will be on the flight.
(Top photo of Russell Westbrook against the Magic: Allison Dinner / Associated Press)