April 14, 2023

Ty Lue says Paul George to return when no risk of further injury

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PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — Before the LA Clippers gathered for a film session and practice, Paul George was working up a sweat, catching-and-shooting 3-pointers at the team’s practice facility on Friday.

George remains out with a sprained right knee but this is the second time this week the All-Star could be seen on the court shooting during media availability at practice. George is just over three weeks removed from when he suffered the injury on March 21 against Oklahoma City. The team last updated George’s status late last week, saying there is no timeline for a return.

But as the Clippers head to Phoenix to face the Suns in their first-round playoff series beginning Sunday, George continues to try to work to make his way back.

“It’s encouraging to see,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said of seeing George shooting. “Especially from the nasty blow that he took. Thought it could be a lot worse than what it was. So just seeing him be able to do some things and actually starting to feel better, that’s good to see because you don’t want to see your players get hurt and get injured, and it could have been a lot worse than what it was.”

Lue said the Clippers will exercise plenty of caution when it comes to any potential return for George.

“We’re definitely not going to do anything to hurt PG,” Lue said. “Even if he does try to come back and he’s not right, we’re not going to let him go because we’re not going to let him injure himself and make it worse than what it really is.

“When he comes back, we’ll make sure he’s close to 100% without being able to injure himself even more.”

Without George, the Clippers will have to lean even more on Kawhi Leonard against Kevin Durant and the Suns. When Leonard takes the floor for Game 1 on Sunday, it will be his first playoff game since he tore his right ACL in Game 4 against Utah in the second round of the playoffs on June 14, 2021.

Leonard has meticulously worked his way back. Over the last three months of the regular season, Leonard was one of two players to average 25 points on 50% shooting, including shooting 45% on 3-pointers.

And Leonard’s track record is to save his best for the playoffs. In each of Leonard’s nine postseasons, the two-time Finals MVP has averaged more points than he did during that regular season. He is just the fifth player in NBA history to average more points in the playoffs than in the regular season in at least nine straight postseason appearances, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

“The guy is a winner,” said Clippers forward Nic Batum. “In this league, people talk about, oh, Playoff Kawhi this or Playoff Kawhi that, he’s going to turn into MJ or whatever. He has that reputation when in big games, he’s going to step up, like two years ago before his injuries.

“He was barely warming up and he was putting (up big numbers). The efficiency he had in the first round (against the) Mavs for a guard, wing guy, numbers compared to Shaq. It shows you when he turns into that mood, he can be dangerous for sure.”

Leonard was averaging 30.4 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and shooting 57.3% from the field in 11 games when he went down in the second round in his last postseason.

Leonard knows, though, he will need his elite defense if the Clippers are to have any shot of slowing Durant. He has plenty of familiarity with Durant, having defended the Suns star for 626 half-court matchups in the regular season and playoffs over the last 10 seasons. Only P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza have defended Durant more individually during that stretch, according to Second Spectrum data.

“He’s a great player,” Leonard said. “These are the fun parts of it. Just going out there, getting to compete against a guy like him that’s been doing it year after year. Everybody is going to have to take the challenge, not just me.”

Leonard echoed that sentiment when talking about having to try to replace George’s two-way production against Phoenix.

“He’s out,” Leonard said of George. “But we’ve still got other players on the team that can help. It’s just like any other game really. It’s another basketball game. There’s just a title on it now. You have a chance to get an ultimate goal for a team. I mean, that’s just the focus level.

“It’s not just starting now. It’s been like that throughout the year, throughout my playing career, trying to play both ends, and just hopefully there’s carryover.”

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