Kawhi’s road back, Lue’s winning blueprint and what’s next for the Clippers

    Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.

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Kawhi Leonard brought the ball up the Crypto.com Arena floor before stopping and popping a 3-pointer on a backpedaling Jaylen Brown.

Seconds later, Leonard snatched a one-handed rebound in traffic before going down the court and sinking a short driving hook shot.

In the span of 30 seconds, Leonard gave the Boston Celtics a taste of prime Kawhi, something the NBA hasn’t seen since June 2021 before the LA Clippers star tore the ACL in his right leg during a second-round series against the Utah Jazz.

Leonard had his best game since the injury, making 10 of 12 shots and delivering 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a 113-93 blowout win over the Celtics on Monday.

A resounding win over the best team in the NBA was the Clippers’ signature victory of the young season. But even more valuable for the Clippers was seeing their franchise player start to look like his old self.

“I think now he’s adjusted, he’s found his rhythm,” Paul George said of Leonard. “And you’ll see him more comfortable on the court.”

This was the season’s first real glimpse of how the Clippers were built to be — Leonard and George outdueling another star duo on both ends of the floor, surrounded by one of the deepest rosters in the NBA, all led by one of the league’s master tacticians in coach Ty Lue.

Three nights later, though, the Clippers started Terance Mann, Amir Coffey and Moses Brown while nearly half the team, including Leonard and George, sat out a rematch of the 2021 Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns due to injuries.

Thirty-one games into the season, the Clippers are still under construction. Lue has yet to see the Clippers operate at full strength with key players shuffling in and out due to injuries or a minutes and games restriction plan designed to keep the Clippers healthy for the postseason.

Entering Saturday’s game against the Washington Wizards, the 17-14 Clippers are not where they had planned to be through mid-December. And it likely will be a while before Lue sees his team play up to its lofty expectations, fully healthy, for a long stretch.

“It’s disappointing because we can’t stay healthy,” Lue said before his undermanned Clippers team lost, 111-95, against the Suns. “… You hate to see it but if it’s gonna happen, I’d rather it happen early than late.

“Seems like every time we get something good going, get a good rhythm, good flow, winning three games in a row, something like this always happens and it gets frustrating at times.”

For now, Lue has to settle for flashes, such as the demolition of Boston, followed up by a grind-it-out defensive win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday. Before losing to the Suns, the Clippers won three straight and held Boston and Minnesota to 93 and 88 points, respectively.

Leonard and George have played only nine games together and are 7-2, outscoring opponents by 71 points in 195 minutes with their tandem on the floor.

After missing all of last season, Leonard’s return this year has had two interruptions — a 22-day setback due to knee stiffness and a nearly two-week absence due to a sprained ankle. George has missed nine games this season, a chunk due to a hamstring issue. Key contributors such as Norman Powell (groin) and Luke Kennard (calf) have missed stretches of games, starters Reggie Jackson (left Achilles) and Ivica Zubac (left knee bone bruise) are dealing with injuries and John Wall, like Leonard, has been on a minutes restriction and is being held out of one game during back-to-backs.

Each time Leonard has returned from a multiple-game injury, the Clippers’ season basically begins anew. The latest reboot has seen Leonard and George stay healthy together for 10 days before sitting out against Phoenix.

As the Clippers continue to navigate a season full of starts and stops amid a wide-open Western Conference race, here are some questions facing LA over the final 51 games:

How long will it take Leonard to get back to full strength?

In his first game back from the sprained ankle against the Charlotte Hornets on Dec. 5, Leonard found himself on the right wing with the ball and the game tied at 117-117 in the final seconds. Seconds prior, George had tapped an offensive rebound to Leonard under the basket.

With Jalen McDaniels guarding, Leonard flashes the ball above and around his head before taking one dribble to his left and then stepping back and drilling an 18-footer with 1.8 seconds left to beat the Hornets.

The normally subdued forward celebrated with a little skip in his step followed by a rare chest bump with Marcus Morris Sr.

“It’s extremely, extremely important,” George said after the win. “We’re seeing him more and more get to his spots. We’re seeing him get comfortable. We’re seeing him be more aggressive as the games go on. He looked like himself.”

Leonard is only 10 games into a comeback slowed by two injuries, a minutes restriction that is now up to 30 per game and a back-to-back restriction that has held him out of three games.

“Play two games to start [the season], went out,” Leonard said on Monday. “Played three, got hurt again, went out. And I’m able to build. It’s only my [then] ninth game of the season. And that’s after going through a whole ACL year.

“So can’t rush it.”

He is averaging 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 44.1% from the field. His 3-point shot — 21.1% from beyond the arc — is something Leonard has struggled with this season.

Because his longest stretch of games played has been three on two occasions this season, Leonard often looks as if he is feeling his way through games. At times, he gets to his preferred mid-range spots, but it hasn’t always been smooth. His shot, especially from 3, looked flatter than usual until this week.

He has been taking what the defense gives him and making the extra pass. His presence on the floor remains impactful as he attracts defensive attention, even drawing double teams from opponents such as San Antonio.

Powell has seen Leonard slowly build his way back after a significant leg injury and still lead the Toronto Raptors to a championship in 2019.

“I think he just knows his impact on the floor,” Powell said after the win over Utah on Nov. 21. “I’ve seen peak Kawhi, so I’m not worried about it at all.

“He’s gonna get in that mode when the time comes.”

Leonard, though, says it might take him more than this season to regain his peak form as a Clipper when he averaged 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and 57.3% shooting in the playoffs before tearing his right ACL.

“ACL recovery isn’t just one year,” Leonard said on Nov. 17 when he returned from a 12-game absence. “Everybody thinks that, but it’s a two-year process, so, I know that and I’m gonna keep going through the process.”

In five of his last seven games, Leonard is trending up, averaging 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 45.2% shooting from the field. He has made 6-of-20 (30%) from 3 in his last four games.

After his vintage game against Boston, Leonard said a big performance in December is not an indication of where he wants to be during this comeback.

“I mean, I wish I could have played more than the games that I’ve missed,” Leonard said after beating Boston. “No, I don’t want to be [is this position] tonight.

“I’m focusing on the end of the year. Playoff basketball. Doesn’t matter about tonight.”

When will the Clippers hit their stride?

While it is still December, the Clippers know they are letting games, playoff positioning and more importantly, valuable time that they need to develop chemistry and rhythm, slip away.

Lue hasn’t had a fully healthy squad without any restriction yet this season and has used 12 different starting lineups.

In two of the first three games of the season, Leonard sat until six minutes to go in the second quarter as the forward preferred to come off the bench late in the first half so he didn’t sit for prolonged stretches.

Lue ended that experiment when his star came back following his 12-game absence in November, describing his attempt to manage rotations under such conditions as “nasty.”

But even with Leonard starting again, it’s been tricky for Lue to navigate minutes restrictions. One game after beating Charlotte, the Clippers blew an 18-point lead to the Orlando Magic and lost in overtime, 116-111, on Dec. 7.

Lue had to start the extra session with his two stars on the bench. It was Leonard’s and George’s second game back from nearly two weeks out due to injuries, and the coach couldn’t bring Leonard back in until the final 1:22. George couldn’t come back in until the final 5.5 seconds.

The Clippers’ late-game execution was predictably ugly with a five-second inbound violation and an errant inbound pass turnover in the final seven seconds.

George, though, had just shed his minutes’ restriction prior to sitting out against Phoenix. And Lue has said that Leonard will be rid of his playing time limit soon if all goes well. That will go a long way toward the Clippers finding their stride.

Defensively, Lue loved what he saw when the Clippers defended as advertised, holding the Wolves to 4-for-22 from 3. But offensively, the Clippers rank last in the NBA in points per game with 107.2. The small lineup of five interchangeable two-way wings that Lue dreamed of during the offseason is still a work in progress.

“When guys are in and out, you have to have a lot of different offensive packages,” Lue said. “… So having to [adjust] a lot, when you’re not sure if guys are gonna be healthy or not.

“We’re really behind offensively, especially how we need to play. And so until we get that continuity, until we get everyone back and everyone healthy, when we get a two- or three-week sample size of how we want to play offensively, that’ll make me feel a lot better.”

Can the Clippers mesh in time for the postseason?

On Nov. 19 against the San Antonio Spurs, Wall was a fast-break blur and put on a passing clinic that hadn’t been seen since the Lob City days.

The Clippers’ offensive firepower was on full display in a 119-97 win over San Antonio as they shot 54.3% overall, drilled 21 3-pointers and had 32 assists on 44 made baskets. Six players scored in double figures, with Powell leading the team with 26 points off the bench. Wall’s 15 assists in 24 minutes were the most by a Clipper since Chris Paul in 2017.

“This,” Lue said postgame, “is the blueprint.”

But the Clippers couldn’t avoid the injury bug even in that game. George, who hit 8-of-12 shots, including five triples, and had 21 points in 15 minutes, didn’t play in the second half due to a hamstring injury that sidelined him for two weeks.

Nearly a month later, Leonard and George were healthy and motivated to show Jayson Tatum and Brown who the better duo is in their 20-point win over the defending Eastern Conference champs.

Of course, the Clippers don’t have a star-studded matchup to fuel them every night, and there are times when they look like a team waiting for the playoffs, disinterested for stretches against rebuilding teams.

After LA beat the Pistons and Spurs in consecutive games last month, Leonard said the Clippers still “need to be better at everything.”

“Until we start showing consistent play on everything down the line,” Leonard said after beating his old Spurs team, “from T-Lue drawing timeouts to us having to scheme coming out of a timeout to starting the game from tipoff having energy, it just depends on where we want to be.

“If we want to be one of the last teams standing, that’s what we have to do.”

Powell will miss his 10th straight game with a groin injury. Zubac, who was a force inside to start the season, will sit for a second straight game might due to a bone bruise. Jackson has been banged up for much of the season. Wall is still building his speed and form back after playing in a total of 40 games the previous three seasons.

And, of course, the Clippers will be ultra-cautious with George and Leonard.

Complicating matters is a packed schedule that will see them play 61 games by the All-Star break.

But Lue believes the Clippers have enough time left to form the chemistry and continuity needed to contend for a title.

“Let’s try 15 games together whole as a team,” Lue said Thursday. “Let’s see if we can do that.”

Lue, who has grown weary of answering daily questions about injuries since the start of training camp, was asked if those 15 games need to be consecutive.

“Consecutive games!” Lue barked, pounding the interview table, as he joked with reporters. “Fifteen! F—. Not two, not three, 15.”

The polite Lue then apologized like he typically does whenever he curses. But within the coach’s half-hearted joke lies the truth about the Clippers. They need a meaningful stretch of games together or risk entering the postseason with no chemistry and rhythm.

The Clippers have 51 games to see if they can regain the form that took them to the Western Conference finals — this time hopefully with a healthy Leonard.

“At this point, we gotta move past from that year,” George said. “There’s a lot of what-ifs and hypotheticals and so we passed that point.

“We gotta create something new, create a whole new story. And I think that’s just what we’re trying to build to now.”

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