Clippers reach into depth chart to get through 5-in-7 stretch, but margin for error eliminated

NEW ORLEANS — March started with the LA Clippers smarting from an embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Lakers that cost them a chance at tying the regular-season series at 2-2. But other than starting center Ivica Zubac, who was recovering from an illness, the Clippers were fully healthy as they prepared to host the Washington Wizards.

Unfortunately for the Clippers, that stretch of the rotation staying healthy didn’t even last to halftime. Backup point guard Russell Westbrook fractured his hand defending backup Washington guard Jordan Poole in the second quarter. Westbrook hadn’t missed a regular-season or playoff game with the Clippers since joining the team during the 2023 All-Star break. He has had many role changes as he has gone between the first unit to the second unit, but Westbrook has been a consistent presence throughout, and a valued member of the team on and off the floor.

Westbrook’s injury came at a time when it was becoming apparent that starting point guard James Harden was flagging somewhat. Harden lit up the defenseless Wizards for 28 points to begin the month, but then he missed all 10 of his field-goal attempts in a narrow road win against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Harden extended his consecutive games streak to begin his tenure with the Clippers to 59 appearances Tuesday night in an embarrassing loss to the Timberwolves at home, but that game marked his third in a row where he failed to score 15 points. While Harden traveled for road games against the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Pelicans, the Clippers ruled him out for both games due to a left shoulder strain.

The Clippers are the oldest team in the NBA. Having first Westbrook, then Harden, to take the playmaking responsibilities over for All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has been beneficial to the team’s efforts to preserve both for a playoff run. Leonard has already played his most regular-season games (60) as a Clipper, and his most minutes (2,056) since leaving the San Antonio Spurs in 2018. Leonard also has a career-best 69 dunks despite injuries to his quadriceps, ACL and meniscus that have ended or kept him out of seasons and postseason runs.

George has also reached 60 games and 2,000 minutes for the first time in his five seasons with the Clippers. While Leonard draws consistent double-teams and is the top option in the offense, George has vacillated between primary isolation scorer and off-ball luxury.

But even Leonard and George have shown signs of wear. Both were held out of Sunday’s loss to the Milwaukee Bucks to prepare for the rest of the grueling five-game, seven-day stretch. George, who had to miss consecutive games at the end of February due to “meniscus irritation,” has handled it well. He has scored 20 points or more in six consecutive games played. But Leonard couldn’t finish the Timberwolves loss Tuesday after taking a shot to the back to begin the weekend.

The Clippers have won five of their nine games in March. Three of the losses were on zero days’ rest against teams that had at least a day off before hosting them. Three of the losses saw a combination of Leonard, George or Harden fail to finish the game. But two of the losses were after the Clippers held leads of at least 15 points. The only win the Clippers have against a winning team in March was an 89-88 victory in Minnesota that was somewhat invalidated nine days later. And Friday night’s 112-104 road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans resulted in another Western Conference opponent that the Clippers lost the regular-season series to.

With 16 games left, the Clippers have to navigate a Western Conference in which they have not clinched a winning record against any of the other six teams in the top seven. Losing to the Pelicans demonstrated a night where the Clippers competed physically but had the kind of mental errors that throw those physical efforts away, like allowing New Orleans power forward/freight train Zion Williamson to score one of his fourteen paint buckets after an Amir Coffey tying 3 with less than four seconds left in the third quarter. The Clippers trailed the entire fourth quarter:

The Pelicans are hunting down the Clippers for home-court advantage in the quarterfinals and are now only two losses behind the Clippers with just over four weeks left in the regular season. Williamson has dominated the Clippers in three different ways: with his ability to draw free throws in November, his ability as a playmaker in February, and with his ability to score inside now in March.

But the Clippers are focused more on where they can be better. And that is why this stretch of five games in seven days has revealed some silver linings, especially with Harden, Westbrook, Leonard and George missing games.

Leonard opened up February by saying the Clippers were winning off of talent. If anything, that warning has turned into a reality.  It’s something of a positive that the Clippers could follow up three of their most humiliating losses (vs. Lakers, at Milwaukee, vs. Timberwolves) with bounce-back wins against the Wizards, at Houston, and at Chicago, respectively. Now, head coach Tyronn Lue has taken the lead on demanding better “mental toughness” as well as competitiveness, clearly putting the onus on his veteran team to be better.

A month ago, Lue had to deactivate veteran power forward PJ Tucker and third-year point guard Bones Hyland right before the All-Star break due to their frustrations with being outside of the playing rotation. But Lue has given both chances to play.

Tucker did not score in February’s three-game rotation stint, and the Clippers have lost his last four appearances, but he has at least shown more willingness to shoot this month while reducing his fouls despite guarding two of the tougher power forwards in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo and Williamson. Tucker has also echoed Leonard and Lue about the Clippers needing to be better when the talent is even and defense and execution will decide victories.

Hyland did not play in a single game in February, but his progress this month culminated in one of the best performances by a guard all season. In Thursday’s start at Chicago, his first since Harden debuted, Hyland had 17 points (6-of-9 field goals), five rebounds, 11 assists (one turnover), four steals, and four 3s. Hyland spent the month knocking down small barriers by the game:

• playing vs. Wizards

• playing in a first half at Minnesota

• making his first 3 since Dec. 21 at Milwaukee

• playing with Harden at Houston

• making multiple 3s in a game for the first time since Dec. 12 vs. Bulls

• playing 20 minutes for the first time since Nov. 10 vs. Bucks

Hyland says that he’s been in contact with Harden and Westbrook about how he should play in his role.

“Just trying to run the offense, find my shot when I can, get guys the ball,” Hyland told The Athletic on Friday in New Orleans. “But at the same time, still using my quickness and my ability to get in the lane, make plays. And just to play how I play.”

Harden and Westbrook missing time has also allowed the Clippers to expand George’s role. Lue cited the presence of the point guards, specifically Harden, as a means to decrease George’s on-ball hits. But now with the postseason coming in a month, and Harden needing the time to recover after leading the team in touches, Lue has declared that now is the time for George to lean back into being on the ball more.

The schedule lightens up for the Clippers for the rest of the month in terms of strength of opponent. The next three games are against a short-handed Atlanta Hawks team, then a mini-series in Portland. Harden could return during that stretch. Overall, the Clippers could be favored over their next nine games before starting their last five-in-seven on April 4 against the Denver Nuggets. Perhaps Westbrook can return by then.

But in the meantime, the Clippers have to take the lessons from being without their best players and being at the short end of the logistics stick and start applying them more consistently. The consequences of not doing that to end March could result in their beginning the postseason on the road, possibly in a place like New Orleans.

“We got to shoot the ball, we got to create,” George said Friday. “Just keep the pace up. We can’t be a slow, half-court team. We got to pick the pace up.”

(Photo of Zion Williamson going to the basket against Amir Coffey: Stephen Lew / USA Today)

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