With Kawhi Leonard again, what different questions do the Clippers have to reply?

Kawhi Leonard introduced the ball up the Crypto.com Area flooring earlier than stopping and popping a 3-pointer on a backpedaling Jaylen Brown.

Seconds later, Leonard snatched a one-handed rebound in visitors earlier than happening the courtroom and sinking a brief driving hook shot.

Within the span of 30 seconds, Leonard gave the Boston Celtics a style of prime Kawhi, one thing the NBA hasn’t seen since June 2021 earlier than the LA Clippers star tore the ACL in his proper leg throughout a second-round collection in opposition to the Utah Jazz.

Leonard had his finest sport because the harm, making 10 of 12 pictures and delivering 25 factors, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in a 113-93 blowout win over the Celtics on Monday.

A convincing win over the very best staff within the NBA was the Clippers’ signature victory of the younger season. However much more invaluable for the Clippers was seeing their franchise participant begin to appear like his outdated self.

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

This was the season’s first actual glimpse of how the Clippers have been constructed to be — Leonard and George outdueling one other star duo on each ends of the ground, surrounded by one of many deepest rosters within the NBA, all led by one of many league’s grasp tacticians in coach Ty Lue.

Three nights later, although, the Clippers began Terance Mann, Amir Coffey and Moses Brown whereas practically half the staff, together with Leonard and George, sat out a rematch of the 2021 Western Convention finals in opposition to the Phoenix Suns attributable to accidents.

Thirty-one video games into the season, the Clippers are nonetheless below development. Lue has but to see the Clippers function at full energy with key gamers shuffling out and in attributable to accidents or a minutes and video games restriction plan designed to maintain the Clippers wholesome for the postseason.

Getting into Saturday’s sport in opposition to the Washington Wizards, the 17-14 Clippers should not the place that they had deliberate to be by mid-December. And it possible shall be some time earlier than Lue sees his staff play as much as its lofty expectations, absolutely wholesome, for an extended stretch.

“It’s disappointing because we can’t stay healthy,” Lue mentioned earlier than his undermanned Clippers staff misplaced, 111-95, in opposition to the Suns. “… You hate to see it but if it’s gonna happen, I’d rather it happen early than late.

“Looks like each time we get one thing good going, get a great rhythm, good move, successful three video games in a row, one thing like this all the time occurs and it will get irritating at occasions.”

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 is extraordinarily, extraordinarily vital,” George said after the win. “We’re seeing him increasingly get to his spots. We’re seeing him get comfy. We’re seeing him be extra aggressive because the video games go on. He appeared 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 video games to begin [the season], went out,” Leonard said on Monday. “Performed three, received harm once more, went out. And I will construct. It is solely my [then] ninth sport of the season. And that is after going by a complete ACL yr.

“So can’t rush it.”

He’s averaging 13.7 factors, 5.8 rebounds and three.5 assists whereas taking pictures 44.1% from the sector. His 3-point shot — 21.1% from past the arc — is one thing Leonard has struggled with this season.

As a result of his longest stretch of video games performed has been three on two events this season, Leonard usually appears to be like as if he’s feeling his method by video games. At occasions, he will get to his most popular mid-range spots, nevertheless it hasn’t all the time been easy. His shot, particularly from 3, appeared flatter than regular till this week.

He has been taking what the protection provides him and making the additional cross. His presence on the ground stays impactful as he attracts defensive consideration, even drawing double groups from opponents reminiscent of San Antonio.

Powell has seen Leonard slowly construct his method again after a big leg harm and nonetheless lead the Toronto Raptors to a championship in 2019.

play

1:43

Kawhi Leonard has 25 factors, 9 rebounds and 6 assists to guide the Clippers to a 113-93 win over the Celtics.

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

“He is 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 restoration is not only one yr,” Leonard said on Nov. 17 when he returned from a 12-game absence. “Everyone thinks that, nevertheless it’s a two-year course of, so, I do know that and I am gonna preserve going by the method.”

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 imply, I want I may have performed greater than the video games that I’ve missed,” Leonard said after beating Boston. “No, I do not wish 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?

Whereas it’s nonetheless December, the Clippers know they’re letting video games, playoff positioning and extra importantly, invaluable time that they should develop chemistry and rhythm, slip away.

Lue hasn’t had a totally wholesome squad with none restriction but this season and has used 12 completely different beginning lineups.

In two of the primary three video games of the season, Leonard sat till six minutes to go within the second quarter because the ahead most popular to return off the bench late within the first half so he did not sit for extended stretches.

Lue ended that experiment when his star got here again following his 12-game absence in November, describing his try to handle rotations below such circumstances as “nasty.”

However even with Leonard beginning once more, it has been difficult for Lue to navigate minutes restrictions. One sport after beating Charlotte, the Clippers blew an 18-point result in the Orlando Magic and misplaced in extra time, 116-111, on Dec. 7.

Lue needed to begin the additional session along with his two stars on the bench. It was Leonard’s and George’s second sport again from practically two weeks out attributable to accidents, and the coach could not carry Leonard again in till the ultimate 1:22. George could not come again in till the ultimate 5.5 seconds.

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

George, although, had simply shed his minutes’ restriction previous to sitting out in opposition to Phoenix. And Lue has mentioned that Leonard shall be rid of his enjoying time restrict quickly if all goes properly. That may go a great distance towards the Clippers discovering their stride.

Defensively, Lue beloved what he noticed when the Clippers defended as marketed, holding the Wolves to 4-for-22 from 3. However offensively, the Clippers rank final within the NBA in factors per sport with 107.2. The small lineup of 5 interchangeable two-way wings that Lue dreamed of in the course of the offseason remains to be a piece in progress.

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

“We’re actually behind offensively, particularly how we have to play. And so till we get that continuity, till we get everybody again and everybody wholesome, after we get a two- or three-week pattern measurement of how we wish to play offensively, that’ll make me really feel so much higher.”


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.

play

2:15

Stephen A. Smith shares his expectations for which teams are the top contenders in the Western Conference.

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 “have to be higher at every part.”

“Till we begin displaying constant play on every part down the road,” Leonard said after beating his old Spurs team, “from T-Lue drawing timeouts to us having to scheme popping out of a timeout to beginning the sport from tipoff having power, it simply is determined by the place we wish to be.

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

Powell will miss his tenth straight sport with a groin harm. Zubac, who was a drive inside to begin the season, will sit for a second straight sport would possibly attributable to a bone bruise. Jackson has been banged up for a lot of the season. Wall remains to be constructing his pace and type again after enjoying in a complete of 40 video games the earlier three seasons.

And, after all, the Clippers shall be ultra-cautious with George and Leonard.

Complicating issues is a packed schedule that can see them play 61 video games by the All-Star break.

However Lue believes the Clippers have sufficient time left to type the chemistry and continuity wanted to contend for a title.

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

Lue, who has grown weary of answering day by day questions on accidents because the begin of coaching camp, was requested if these 15 video games have to be consecutive.

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

The well mannered Lue then apologized like he sometimes does at any time when he curses. However inside the coach’s half-hearted joke lies the reality concerning the Clippers. They want a significant stretch of video games collectively or danger getting into the postseason with no chemistry and rhythm.

The Clippers have 51 video games to see if they’ll regain the shape that took them to the Western Convention finals — this time hopefully with a wholesome Leonard.

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

“We gotta create one thing new, create a complete new story. And I believe that is simply what we’re making an attempt to construct to now.”