The Clippers appear to be operating like a team that’s extremely aware of its mortality. Paul George returned from injury Tuesday to help lead LA to a comeback win over the Utah Jazz, scoring 34 points in 31 minutes. If his right elbow — which could’ve been repaired via surgery but he opted to play through it — was hindering him at all, you’d never know it by the way he shot. He finished 10-20 overall, going 6-9 from deep.
This also wasn’t James Harden beating up on Orlando. It was two playoff teams on a national broadcast, and Utah was up by 20 late in the third quarter. It wasn’t a must-win game as the Clippers have more or less secured the eighth seed, but the team was on a five-game skid and looking very much like a team that’s been propped up by journeymen and duct tape without its two stars for much of the season.
George’s very presence this late in the year, much less the 30-plus minutes he played in his first game back, is going to start the rumor train for Kawhi Leonard’s return from a torn ACL. ESPN reported last week that the team is leaving the door ajar for a Leonard return if LA makes it out of the play-in tourney.
However, that runs contrary to what coach Ty Lue said about three weeks ago when he said it wouldn’t be safe for either George or Leonard to return in the playoffs if they didn’t see the floor in the regular season. George hit that mark Tuesday, and looked like the PG we’re accustomed to seeing when he’s healthy.
After the game, George said he’s channeling his inner Kobe Bryant by playing through an injury. That’s a great quote, but we’ve seen what he’s like when he’s hurt, and it doesn’t always look like that. It was only one game, and he could look completely different in Chicago on Thursday. What’s encouraging, in addition to the impromptu in-air assist that was awesome/showed he’s comfortable with that elbow, was the news that his rehab included enough cardio to make him feel like a track-and-field athlete.
George referred to it as “unnecessary running” but admitted it “paid off.” That certainly sounds like a player gearing up for more than a play-in game and maybe a first-round exit.
We all know how meticulous Leonard is with his health, and it’s encouraging that there are even rumors of his return. Normally, when he comes back from an injury he materializes on the court without warning — as if Steve Balmer teleported him in.
Lue can lay out all of the return-to-action prerequisites he wants, yet I still think if Leonard clears himself to play — and he’s the only person clearing himself to play — he’s waving his hand in front of his coach and Jedi mind-tricking his way on the court.
He’s been practicing in front of the media, and noted-aggregate hater Bill Simmons didn’t even say don’t aggregate this during an “I’m hearing things” segment of his podcast this week when he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Clippers have a full roster come playoff time.
There’s also something to be said for a player wanting to deliver on a super team he constructed. I thought Kevin Durant would punt on the playoffs last season with the Nets injuries, but he made the Bucks kill him.
Everyone talking about how no one wants to face a seven- or eight-seeded Brooklyn in the first round of the playoffs in the East will surely be saying the same thing about the Clippers if the team allows Leonard to return. Guys who know how hard it is to win a title don’t take any playoffs for granted.
I don’t know how much it’ll matter because the best two teams in the NBA all season have been Phoenix and Memphis, and the Clippers will have to play at a level we haven’t seen them reach even at full-strength to upset one of them, but it’d be a great consolation prize for the league with the Lakers currently outside the play-in games.
When I wrote about what was looking like a lost season three weeks ago after Lue issued his ultimatum, I wondered if health and opportunity would ever align for Leonard, George, and the Clippers to make a title run.
George’s return implies the rapidly closing window is at the forefront of his mind. The Clippers not ruling out their best player this late in the season shows that Leonard and the team are equally aware of how fleeting the lifespan is for championship-caliber teams.
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