The participation of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in practice Friday wasn’t a precursor to the injured stars’ return a day later, after all.
It only extended the pause surrounding their eventual returns, the All-Star duo watching in street clothes as Sacramento overwhelmed the Clippers in a 123-96 loss at Crypto.com Arena.
It was Leonard’s sixth consecutive absence with a sprained ankle and George’s seventh because of a hamstring tendon, while Luke Kennard, who also practiced Friday, missed his ninth game with a calf strain. A strained groin sidelined backup guard Norman Powell a second consecutive game, and as the Kings’ lead ballooned to 28 points before halftime, Powell rested his chin on his right hand, his expression conveying the emotion of this rout.
Though there is some optimism that Leonard, George and Kennard could play Monday in Charlotte at the start of a four-game trip, it didn’t help the Clippers as the Kings, one of the NBA’s most uptempo teams, pulled away from the start.
Sacramento (12-9), a franchise long mocked throughout its 16-season playoff drought, has become a trendy team to watch in coach Mike Brown’s first season. After victories the Kings light a laser atop their home arena that can be seen for miles — a practice that has taken on cult status, with a section of fans even chanting “Light the beam!” in the final minutes of Saturday’s blowout.
For their own part, the Clippers might resort to lighting a prayer candle in hopes their roster soon can return to whole — and, for once, stay that way.
Leonard “felt good” after the workout, coach Tyronn Lue said, but “today wasn’t the right day” for the injured Clippers to return, adding that the early 1 p.m. tip-off wasn’t a factor in their sitting out.
“They definitely want to play, we just gotta be smart about it,” Lue said. “You hate to see this happen. Kawhi, who has missed 15 months of basketball, you think he don’t want to play? Like, he wants to play. PG wants to play and it’s just not the right time.”
Lue called himself optimistic the stars will return during the road trip and bring some semblance of normalcy with them.
“You’re not gonna sit out eight, nine games in a row because you wanna sit out,” Lue said. “Like that could be a one-game situation or a guy like, ‘OK, I’m not feeling good today.’ But eight, nine games in a row, you’re not sitting out because you just wanna sit out and make your own decision, you know? They’re injured, they’re hurt and they’re doing everything they can to get back.”
Brandon Boston Jr. scored a team-high 18 points, with Ivica Zubac contributing 13 points and 15 rebounds, but the Clippers shot an anemic 35%.
More than a quarter of the way through the season, the Clippers’ championship ambitions remain possible even after a 13-11 start. The example set last season by eventual finalists Boston — just 20-21 last January before a pulverizing defensive turnaround — and Golden State — which was mired in defensive issues as late as March — underscored the patience that should be exercised before writing off a contender with a deep bench and backed by deep pockets.
Within the Clippers locker room, some have described a need for urgency, while others have noted that there is still plenty of time to get on track.
“When you short-handed like we are right now, there’s gonna be some tough moments like this,” Lue said. “These kind of things build character.”
They also make it hard to build consistency. The Clippers have outscored opponents by 38 points in George and Leonard’s minutes this season — a total of just 65 minutes, however. For context, Phoenix surged to a West-leading 15-7 record behind Devin Booker and Mikal Bridges’ 687 minutes together. And it’s no coincidence that Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have spent 530 minutes together amid Boston’s NBA-best 18-5 start.
“It’s just exhausting,” Zubac said. “We have been playing so many games — our schedule has been like, I think we’ve played the most games in the league so far and we were the last team to start the season. So when you have less bodies, you know, it’s hard, but at the same time, there are injuries everywhere. Unfortunately, some teams have more than other ones.
“We have to hold it up until they are back and when they are back, hopefully soon, we will start building some chemistry on the court.”
In Saturday’s first quarter, guard Reggie Jackson, who felt back spasms after falling hard Tuesday in Portland, fell again. The ball and Jackson both went out of bounds. The point guard labored down the court for several possessions before briefly going to the locker room. He was not ruled out and played 23 minutes despite appearing to play with discomfort, making one of 12 shots and finishing with zero assists. Afterward, Jackson described his health as fine.
Forward Marcus Morris Sr. made two of 11 shots. One of the few dependable offensive options after entering training camp healthy, Morris has hit a rough skid, making 26% of his shots in the last week, including five of 21 three-pointers.