2021 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Jazz (1) vs. Clippers (4)

Clippers survive first game without Kawhi Leonard, grab 3-2 series lead

Paul George steps up with 37 points in a pivotal Game 5, but you have to wonder how long LA can beat the odds without their other superstar.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Paul George becomes the first player in Clippers history to post 35 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists in a playoff game.

This is time for celebration, a moment of glory, a chance for the LA Clippers and especially Paul George to flex and have a little fun.

But why does it feel so suddenly uncomfortable for a team that’s a win away from the franchise’s first appearance in the Western Conference finals?

Well, you know the reason. While the Clippers were in Salt Lake City pulling off a 119-111 victory in Game 5 to seize a 3-2 series lead, Kawhi Leonard was in Los Angeles awaiting test results on his ailing right knee. Therefore, it was a day of extreme contrasts for the Clippers: Their hearts were beating loudly throughout a gutsy, short-handed victory, while their heads were woozy from the morning news flash about the potential of Kawhi missing the rest of the postseason.

It was all so weird, so conflicting.

Leonard appeared to tweak the knee on a non-contact play two nights earlier. He didn’t immediately leave the game, but did so moments later and sat the remaining four minutes of the Clippers’ victory in Game 4. He waved off questions about the knee immediately after the game, but upon further review by the medical staff, something was indeed amiss. Kawhi flew with the team to Utah, then boomeranged back to LA while reports swirled that the knee could actually be seriously damaged enough to invite surgery.

George leads the Clippers over Utah

Kenny, Chuck and Shaq react to the monster game by Paul George leading a Game 5 victory over Utah.

At this point, it’s all speculation. The club didn’t release any updates other than to say he was a scratch for Wednesday and there is no timetable for his return. We should know more Thursday.

But we all learned something Wednesday night about the teammates he left behind. Led by George, who’s in full redemption mode from last year’s playoffs, the Clippers repelled the Jazz on the road, in a tough place to play. By all means, it was compelling basketball by the visitors, who took control early and never quivered from the moment or any comeback attempt by the Jazz.

This was all too reminiscent of Brooklyn’s riveting win the previous night against the Bucks while being shortchanged Kyrie Irving and with a hobbled James Harden. George assumed the Kevin Durant role and, while his performance wasn’t as ballistic, he delivered often and emphatically, with 37 points and 16 rebounds. George kept the accelerator pressed for 40 minutes against the Jazz, which is exactly what the Clippers needed from their resident and only healthy All-Star.

For the most part, all questions about George’s ability to go solo were put to rest, if only temporarily, since this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. Also, given how he flamed out last postseason, he’s no longer being spooked by ghosts of the past. A message to all of his many critics: Lay off P.

But there was more: Reggie Jackson continued being a superb supporting player with another wave of 3-pointers that pummeled the Jazz, essentially beating Utah at its own game. Jackson scored 22 points, and Marcus Morris chipped in with 25, and the Clippers, from a scoring standpoint, were covered without Kawhi.

And did you see young pup Terance Mann take the elevator up and dunk on Rudy Gobert, the freshly-named Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year? The Clippers had it going in so many ways.

George: 'Everybody played their roles and we did it collectively'

Paul George speaks after leading the Clippers to a Game 5 win in Utah scoring 37 points with 16 rebounds.

What they also did well was defend Donovan Mitchell. Obviously, Mitchell was due for a struggle, since by nature he’s a streaky player, and he shot just 6-for-19 mainly because the Clippers were very clever about their double-team tactics.

The crowd in Utah, usually noisy, was stunned by the persistence of the Clippers and soon turned desperate and finally silent. This game was a wrap. This series? Well, that’s far from a wrap, even with the Clippers going home for Game 6.

So we wonder, for the sake of the Clippers: How long will this euphoria last? Will it expire in another 48 hours and be snuffed by Sunday, which is when a Game 7 would be played back in Utah, if necessary? These questions wouldn’t be as piercing if Leonard was healthy and frisky, but he’s not, and so here we are.

It’s really a shame how the NBA playoffs have been reduced into a race of attrition, and how the healthiest team, and not necessarily the best team, might move on in both conferences. There’s a question of why these injuries are occurring — is it because of the compressed schedule caused by the pandemic that both the league and the players agreed upon? But that’s a debate for another day.

Right now, the ailing players — and Mike Conley, who hasn’t played in this series yet for Utah, is included in that group — are of no help. It’s all about those left behind, those who must muster their best efforts and compensate for the missing piece, or go home for the summer.

The Clippers delivered on that count Wednesday. That wasn’t too tough. You know what’s tough? Trying to do it again, and again, and for however long they remain in these playoffs, without the possibility of seeing Kawhi Leonard.

Some might disagree and say that’s not tough, but impossible.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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