LOS ANGELES – Once the buzzer sounded, some players looked down on the ground. Others placed their hands on their heads.
The LA Clippers just suffered a 105-101 Play-In loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday, which officially ended their 2021-22 campaign and captured their season-long turbulence.
The day began with the Clippers learning Paul George would miss the game after testing positive for COVID-19. They pledged to lean on the resiliency that ensured a No. 8 seed while being without two of their top players in George and injured Kawhi Leonard. And then the Clippers ended their day nursing frustration with a season cut short once again.
“This one is tough,” guard Reggie Jackson said as he stared at the ground. “It’s a tough loss to take.”
And why wouldn’t it be? The Clippers will miss the NBA playoffs for the first time in four years only a season after making the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
LA spent the second half of their Play-In defeat overcoming a 16-point deficit only to squander a 13-point lead. And after showing all season they could overcome most obstacles, the Clippers eventually ran out of energy, adjustments and depth to hold off a resilient Pelicans team.
Following the game in the locker room, players kept to themselves, barely saying much. As Jackson observed, “it’s quiet in there.”
How the Clippers reacted to George’s news
Friday’s episode provided a window into what made the Clippers’ season both special and disappointing.
Lue woke up early Friday morning to a flood of unanswered phone calls and text messages from the front office, informing him that his star forward tested positive for COVID-19 after showing symptoms on Thursday.
“Disappointing news,” coach Tyronn Lue said, shaking his head.
Not only did the Clippers feel disappointed over George’s absence, but they were also devastated for their star player who had already been sidelined for three months rehabbing from his right elbow injury. Since his return, George showed varying flashes of brilliance and rust through five regular-season games and a Play-In appearance by averaging 22.6 points while shooting 42.3% from the field and 51.9% from 3-point range along with 6.2 assists and 2.5 steals.
And now George wouldn’t have the chance to salvage the Clippers’ season? Not surprising then that Lue described George both as “disappointed” and “down.” Shortly after learning about George’s unfortunate news, Lue delivered an inspiring message.
“We’ve got to win this game for you,” Lue told George, “and get ready for the next series.”
The Clippers became used to this unfortunate reality during the regular season. Because of those circumstances, though, Lue conceded this season “has made me a better coach. “
“It starts with me,” Lue said. “Having these guys ready to play, that’s my job.”
Following the morning shootaround, Lue talked extensively with Terance Mann who has impressed in his third season with his increased workload and positional versatility. Before that, Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr. addressed the team as they often did anytime adversity struck.
“That was very tough going without our best player,” Morris said. “But I just told them, ‘We’re all NBA players and played a lot of the season without [George]. Just telling the guys it’s an opportunity to step up and make a name for themselves.”
The Clippers couldn’t exactly answer that call. They at least tried. After Pelicans guard Brandon Ingram scored 14 of his team-high 30 points in the first quarter, the Clippers slowed him down while limiting the rest of the Pelicans offensively. When the Clippers went small in the third quarter, they held the Pelicans to a 27.3% clip. The Clippers then looked fatigued in the fourth while squandering missing their last five shots.
Why the Clippers felt encouraged
Despite ranking second in the NBA for most games missed due to injuries (345), the Clippers secured an appearance in the NBA’s Play-In Tournament, finishing the regular season to earn the No. 8 spot in the West.
Moving forward, they expect to field mostly the same roster while adding back their top player Leonard along with a healthy George. Blend it all together, the Clippers managed to envision a bright future while experiencing a bleak present.
"When you get Kawhi back, a top 5 player. When you get PG back, a perennial all-star. The team changes tremendously… We can be very different with those two guys back and healthy… We can be special."
Ty Lue on areas for Clippers to improve to take next step. pic.twitter.com/yZrp150zwT
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) April 16, 2022
“This team can be pretty special,” Lue said. “But it’s all about health.”
It sure is. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season recovering from his surgically repaired ACL in his right knee. George missed a combined 51 games with various ailments, including 43 to treat a torn ligament in his right elbow. And the Clippers nursed 29 different starting lineups because of numerous ailments.
That might lead one to wonder if the Clippers will nurse health concerns just as they’ve done with Leonard and George since they joined the team for the 2019-20 season. Perhaps. But consider that the Clippers fully anticipated Leonard missing the entirety of the season since it typically takes a player 12 to 18 months to recover from an ACL injury. Or consider that George has fully recovered from shoulder injuries that plagued him three years ago as well as the right elbow that sidelined him for half of this season.
“The sky’s the limit when you get those two,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be about hopefully getting them healthy, meshing, and everybody, like I said, improving individually, then us coming together as a collective to figure out how we can be better as a team, hit the ground running next year.”
The Clippers can hit the ground running, especially because of how they forged their identity to make the best of their circumstances all season long. They leaned on both established veterans (Morris, Nicolas Batum, Jackson) and young players (Mann, Luke Kennard, Amir Coffey, Ivica Zubac), who all offered positional versatility, dependable outside shooting and a resilient attitude.
Nonetheless, the Clippers never became content with just settling on their role players. Before the trade deadline, the Clippers acquired Norman Powell and Robert Covington from the Portland Trail Blazers for Eric Bledsoe, Justice Winslow and Keon Johnson along with a 2025 second-round pick from the Detroit Pistons in hopes to collect as much talent and assets as possible.
Powell wound up playing only seven games after missing a combined 22 games with a fractured left foot. Now with Powell completing the first of his five-year, $90 million deal, the Clippers have both the security in developing the sixth-year guard entering his prime and an additional asset in future deals.
“With Norm being able to get us up on track, learning the plays, our system, what we’re trying to do,” Lue said, “we can be special.”
Covington became part of the Clippers’ valued small-ball lineups, including the unit that became instrumental in the team’s dominant third-quarter run (38-18) on Friday night. Covington will become a free agent this summer, and the Clippers can spend over the cap to keep him because of the Bird exception. Covington hardly hesitated on whether he would like to stay with the Clippers long term.
“Of course. It’s been a smooth transition,” Covington said. “I would love to retire here.”
Batum appeared less forthcoming about his $3.3 million player option. Although he laughed off the question, the veteran guard-forward later tipped his hand when marveling at the team’s resiliency.
“I love it here,” Batum said. “With that coach and those guys? It’s tough today, but it’s going to be fun next year.”
Even in a results-oriented business, the Clippers felt at peace because they exhausted all of their resources. They also remained aware that more help will arrive in a few months.
“We’re building the right culture and going in the right direction,” Lue said. “Our next step is we just got to stay healthy.”
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