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Dan Woike: Time could be running out for Clippers and Kawhi Leonard

By Dan Woike, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

ORLANDO, Fla. - Doc Rivers left the NBA bubble with the kind of limp that's a receipt for nearly 26,000 minutes of NBA basketball played on his legs. A 3-1 playoff series lead turned into a punchline for the second time in five years, and disbelief filled his lungs.

He marveled at Denver's togetherness, and regretted his team didn't have it.

"They kept playing. They never stopped. They just kept playing," he said. "And when things got bad for us, we stopped trusting. Man ... I urged them - keep trusting. And in the heat of the moment, everyone wanted to make the play instead of trusting each other."

The Clippers' 104-89 loss to Denver Tuesday night means the organization will have to soak in the disappointment of squandering 47 points worth of leads in its last three games. It's a pain that won't go away until the Clippers can take the court again, and who knows when that'll be?

"Maybe March," Kawhi Leonard mused. No date for next season has been finalized.

The sting from these losses will force owner Steve Ballmer, president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank and the rest of the Clippers' front office to consider drastic changes, the kind more difficult to figure out when the impact of the NBA bubble is added to the equation.

And, it'll require the Clippers to take serious stock of their situation and understand the urgency of it all.

"It was obvious pressure to live up to the title expectations," Clippers guard Paul George said. "But as a player, I mean, you want that. Like you want that. Again, it's the first time I've been in that situation where we're expected to win. But you know, it is what it is. It's no cop-out. Fact of the matter is, we didn't live up to that expectation.

"But I think internally, we've always felt, this is not a championship-or-bust year for us."

That might not sit well with the people who traded the Clippers' future for George - with the assurance that Kawhi Leonard would sign - last offseason. It's a deal that cost the Clippers draft picks until 2026 and their best young player, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Oklahoma City Thunder made that trade because they knew they'd need time to rebuild. The Clippers made that trade because they knew they couldn't afford to wait.

The Clippers again will have to move forward at double speed this offseason because, once again, there's no time to wait. Leonard, the player who fully legitimized the Clippers as a bona fide destination by signing there after winning a title with Toronto in 2019, could opt out and walk after next season.

Marcus Morris and Montrezl Harrell are free agents, and JaMychal Green can become one if he declines his player option. And while George was fully in the "run-it-back" camp postgame Tuesday, Leonard said the Clippers need to adjust.

"We've got to get smarter," Leonard said.

Leonard, as with George and Rivers, said the Clippers' chemistry problems were crippling. Multiple players fought COVID-19 before arriving in the bubble. Three others left Orlando to cope with the deaths of friends and family.

 

And with players in and out of quarantine - time extended in one case by a trip to a gentleman's club for some chicken wings - kept the Clippers from the practice time Rivers craved once it was announced the season was back on.

Denver also had to fight adversity, its organization hit hard by the virus. Coach Michael Malone and star Nikola Jokic were among those who tested positive. When the team arrived in Orlando, they did so with just more than half its players.

The Nuggets, Rivers said, had the groundwork to absorb those setbacks because of the time they spent together preparing for such challenges. The Clippers didn't have that luxury, needing to adjust in moments, like a student cracking a book for the first time the night before an exam.

They never had that chemistry, nor the mental fortitude to stay within game plans for 48 minutes, and it cost them, especially in Games 5 and 6. They didn't have the toughness to cope with the pressure that built with each missed shot. And they definitely didn't have enough players staying unnerved as Leonard and George turned in horrible offensive performances in Game 7.

Does bringing Harrell, the reigning sixth man of the year, and Morris back solve those problems? That's for the Clippers to decide over the upcoming months. Any pathways to significant improvement probably will have to be made through a trade, and almost certainly will include the Clippers taking on hefty, long-term contracts because they don't have the capital to acquire a great player on the quick.

And what about the two stars who disappeared late in the most important game in Clippers history, combining to miss all 10 of their shots in the fourth quarter? They surely need to find ways to be better and, if not, to lift the players around them.

Maybe a more experienced, true point guard who could be a primary playmaker would free the two in more situations - for instance, these last three second halves.

George needs to get comfortable and find his voice, because that's just not Leonard's personality. And relying on role players to carry that burden isn't typically how championships are won.

Then there's Rivers. He's been with the Clippers since 2013, currently the fifth-longest run for a coach with one team. But three of the coaches ahead of Rivers on the list have won NBA titles with their current teams, as the Clippers stare at an uncrossable moat surrounding the conference finals.

As matters unraveled in the fourth quarter Tuesday night, Rivers called timeout in an attempt to instill some sort of cohesion. But as the Clippers walked off the floor, they did so as five socially distanced individuals, completely disconnected.

"I'll let you do all the blaming," Rivers said after the game. "I don't play that game. You can figure that one out on your own."

But in losing this way this many times in a row, finding a solution seems almost impossible. And with time working against the Clippers, the pressure to make it right is even greater.

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