For the next week there will be a missing piece in the Clippers’ rotation.
Norman Powell remains out of the lineup because of his injured left shoulder.
Yet after claiming consecutive wins during this week, the Clippers believe they’ve found something that had been missing during their recent five-game losing streak: maybe, just maybe, momentum.
“We’re figuring it out, I think we’re getting better game-by-game, definitely from these last two games,” reserve guard Eric Gordon said Friday, a day ahead of a matinee against the streaking Knicks. “The sense of urgency is there. A lot of those losses came down to one possession and now we’re figuring it out a little bit more.”
By holding Memphis to 17 fourth-quarter points Sunday — 34 fewer than the Grizzlies scored in their third-quarter landslide — and then following that by limiting Toronto to 38% shooting, including just 39% on shots taken inside the paint, the Clippers (35-33) have found in their last five quarters what coach Tyronn Lue called a defensive “blueprint.”
“I thought we did a good job of talking, getting back in transition at times, limiting them to one shot,” Kawhi Leonard said Wednesday. “Communication was pretty good. We’ve been talking about the guys that are talking, need to talk more and whoever’s not talking needs to start talking.”
Optimism has resurfaced because of the health of All-Star forward Paul George. He can “do anything and everything I want to do” again after an unspecified right knee issue had led him to be limited both in minutes and how he felt he could play after the All-Star break.
It might be a factor into why he has attacked the paint more off the dribble, with 35% of his shots during the last two games coming within 10 feet of the rim, an uptick from his season average of 27%.
“I knew I had to play better on both sides of the ball,” George said Wednesday. “A lot of how this season goes will come down to how I play and my performance. So I’m always going to take the personal challenge of getting better and, I’m a guy that likes to lead by example, so if I’m not holding my weight how am I going to inspire or influence my teammates to hold theirs?”
Still missing despite the self-professed improvement are two important, and related, elements. Powell is a candidate for the NBA’s top reserve this season but suffered a partial dislocation of his left shoulder March 2. He will remain out for the next week before being re-evaluated. Powell has been able to do on-court work during practice, and in some cases has worked out multiple times per day. Lue anticipated Powell would continue to participate minimally in Friday’s practice, but doubted Powell would be ready for contact.
With Powell out, Lue said he still is unsure which lineup combinations work best together. There is no doubt any rotation decisions will be built up from a foundation of starters Leonard, George, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac. Deciding how deep his rotation goes from there, and which players are best suited to close games together, is the primary challenge, Lue said, with only 14 games remaining in the regular season.
“The only consistency we’ve had this year — and the last couple years — has been Marcus, Kawhi, PG and Zu, and so that’s the only consistency we got right now, and so we got to continue to keep working with that,” Lue said. “But then the guys on the bench just seeing how they fit in and what role they can play and who they fit well with is gonna be the hardest thing.”
How the Clippers finished their most recent victories underscored Lue’s evolving decision-making. After point guard Russell Westbrook played Sunday’s entire fourth quarter against Memphis, the Clippers winning those 12 minutes by 21 points, he didn’t play the final 17 minutes Wednesday against Toronto as Lue opted to stay with Terance Mann and Gordon the entire fourth quarter.
“T Lue is going to play … who he thinks has been playing well throughout the game or what he feels,” Leonard said, “and everybody knows that on the team.”
While discussing whether to sign Westbrook as a free agent last month, one of the primary hurdles was seen as gauging the former NBA most valuable player’s acceptance of a role whose scope could change night to night. Lue praised Westbrook’s buy-in as “100%” and it has been seen in his willingness to play differently than he has in the past.
A ballhandler in pick-and-roll plays his entire career, Westbrook set screens on consecutive possessions to open the second half against Toronto with immediate success, the veteran rolling to the basket and making plays that led to four points.
“He’s been doing a lot of things on the fly, but he’s been great,” Lue said.