The Clippers Lost, but the Dream Duo Is Coming
HOUSTON — The Los Angeles Clippers have 71 games to go before the N.B.A. playoffs after Wednesday night’s fourth-quarter unraveling against the Houston Rockets.
The Clippers also have 10 more sets of back-to-back games to get through, even after Thursday’s visit to New Orleans. Translation: Kawhi Leonard is likely to sit out at least 10 more games because of the Clippers’ well-chronicled determination to prevent him from playing on consecutive nights for precautionary health reasons.
We present you with all that math to explain why Paul George, who is scheduled to make his Clippers debut on Thursday night against the Pelicans, can share the floor with his fellow All-Star Leonard in a maximum of 60 games before their first postseason run together. Chances are that total is more likely to wind up in the 50s as the Clippers ease George back to full speed in the wake of off-season surgery on both shoulders — while also managing a longstanding tendon injury in Leonard’s left knee.
The Clippers’ Doc Rivers, mind you, is not about to complain about such first-world problems. In his 21st season as an N.B.A. coach, after 13 seasons as a player, Rivers is too, well, seasoned to be duped into thinking anyone would respond sympathetically.
“I’m fine with it,” Rivers said of the ongoing unknowns that linger about the Leonard-and-George tag team. “I’d rather have them, you know what I mean?”
You would struggle to find a dissenting opinion anywhere on the N.B.A. map. Even with their daunting injury histories — and even though Leonard and George possess short-term deals that will allow them to become free agents again in the summer of 2021 — Rivers and the Clippers are grateful for the opportunity, however rushed, to try to mold them into a title-winning duo.
“You’ll take it,” Rivers said. “You just take the talent.”
Rivers didn’t know it at the time, but minutes before his pregame news briefing at Toyota Center, Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni had offered supportive sentiments in a chat down the hall.
D’Antoni was asked if he found it easier in Houston to try to build an offensive system around a newly formed marquee duo — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — than he had in Phoenix. In his second season as head coach of the Suns, in 2004-5, D’Antoni’s starting lineup featured the eventual Most Valuable Player Award winner, Steve Nash, joining a trio of incumbent stars: Amar’e Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Joe Johnson.
“I’ll take the four and try to figure it out,” D’Antoni said. “I think any coach would say, ‘Give me all four.’ There’s always challenges even if you only have two stars — even if you only have one.”
By night’s end, Rivers was fuming about unrelated matters after Houston’s 102-93 victory. He branded the Clippers’ performance, in which they quickly fell behind by 17 points, a “low-focus game for us.” He chastised himself for allowing Leonard (26 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists) to log 41 minutes. And most of all, he seethed about his ejection with 91 seconds remaining, insisting that the referee Tony Brothers should not have tossed him. As part of a confusing coach’s challenge, Brothers’s crew incorrectly advised the Clippers that they had one more timeout available than they actually did, leading to bedlam in crunchtime.
“The refs screwed up,” Rivers said, undeterred by the league fine for publicly criticizing game officials that is surely coming.
Yet one suspects his mood will rebound once he finally sees George in uniform.
Rivers did briefly lament that George had yet to engage in any meaningful practicing with the Clippers’ other projected starters, but he stopped there. He knows to expect no sympathy when, in more games than not going forward, L.A.’s roster will have two players universally ranked among the league’s 10 best.
The Lakers’ Anthony Davis and LeBron James certainly have a head start in the race to be crowned as the league’s most formidable duo — as well as a stylistic advantage as a seemingly storybook inside-outside combo. Yet Rivers will happily take his chances with a pair of two-way monster swingmen in this era of positionless basketball.
The Clippers, remember, happily surrendered five future first-round draft picks, in addition to the highly coveted guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the veteran forward Danilo Gallinari, to acquire George, 29, from Oklahoma City. It’s a trade they made at Leonard’s behest to clinch the two-time N.B.A. finals M.V.P.’s decision to leave Toronto and join the Clippers as a free agent.
“They are similar in the way they play,” Rivers said.
The Clippers’ Lou Williams said, “I’m just excited to have our entire group and just see what it looks like.”
Better times are surely ahead for Rivers, who was forced to endure the added annoyance of his son Austin, a Rockets reserve, gesturing for his father’s expulsion on the floor and whipping up the crowd while Doc Rivers unsuccessfully pleaded his case.
Considerable scrutiny, on top of the high expectations, awaits George as he starts anew after four successive first-round exits — especially given how quickly Leonard has established that the Clippers are his team. But, again, no one will be feeling sorry for him.
For all the work Rivers faces in figuring out his best starting and late lineups, finding playing time for everyone on a deep roster and nurturing the chemistry between Leonard and George, they were 7-3 until succumbing to Harden’s 47 points for the 8-3 Rockets.
The Clippers also entered Wednesday’s play having faced what ESPN rated as the league’s second-toughest schedule to date. Throw out the two games that Leonard was held out as part of the Clippers’ first two back-to-backs, and they finished 7-2 while George was recuperating.
In a rare proclamation from the quiet superstar, Leonard went so far as to assert that the wait for his starry new sidekick wasn’t nearly as agonizing as it could have been.
“It’s actually gone by fast,” Leonard said.