‘We have battled’: Clippers reflect on challenging season ahead of play-in

This time, they were short-handed by design.

It was the Clippers’ regular-season finale, against an opponent in Oklahoma City with more incentives to improve its draft lottery odds than its win total. It was their second game in as many nights. It came, most importantly, just 48 hours before a playoff berth would be on the line with Tuesday’s play-in tournament matchup in Minnesota.

It was why, then, there were nearly as many Clippers in off-court clothes as uniforms on the sideline, with Norman Powell and starters Paul George, Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris Sr. resting during the 138-88 rout of the Thunder ahead of Tuesday’s opportunity to grab the West’s seventh seed and secure a first-round series.

But the irregular rotations, jumbled lineups and sidelined starters were nothing if not a reminder of the nights when their roster was depleted for reasons outside of their control — 385 total games missed this season because of injuries, COVID-related absences or other reasons. That included an entire season without star Kawhi Leonard and 50 games without another All-Star, George.

That the Clippers (42-40) still managed the West’s eighth-best record while clinching an 11th consecutive winning season, the NBA’s longest active streak, was one reason the Clippers briefly paused in the season’s final days, before their focus turned entirely toward a playoff push, and considered the improbability of how they navigated a choppy season in which inconsistency reigned and arrived here, on the verge of a fourth consecutive playoff berth.

“The story is very revealing,” George said Saturday. “A, is T-Lue is a hell of a coach. B, we have a hell of a roster. And C, things would be a lot different if we were healthy. I think this group, we’ve been resilient, we have been tough, we have battled.

“We’re connected. If you look at it, we are probably one of the closest teams in the NBA. I think it shows. Anytime you take myself, Kawhi out of a lineup and you still have a team that is competing, it just says what kind of locker room that is.”

Clippers guard Paul George controls the ball during a win over the Sacramento Kings on Saturday.

(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

That locker room has included 23 players who appeared in at least one game and 26 different starting lineups. Their most-used lineup logged just 221 minutes — by contrast the league’s most-reliable lineup, from Denver, played nearly 3½ times that many — and included Amir Coffey, who was re-signed to a two-way contract on the last day before training camp and was an afterthought until George’s elbow injury in December thrust him into the spotlight.

Coffey had career highs of 35 points and 10 rebounds as the Clippers made their first six three-pointers to prime the blowout from the start. The only moment of worry came in the fourth quarter when Luke Kennard, who scored 20 points, reinjured the right hamstring that cost him a game Wednesday. The final minutes were an exhibition for players such as Brandon Boston Jr. and Xavier Moon, who were called upon heavily when the roster was at its thinnest.

The blowout was so pronounced it helped the Clippers finish the season with a positive point differential of two points. And with 18 more three-pointers, they added to the single-season record they reset Saturday.

In January, Kennard and coach Tyronn Lue spent long COVID quarantines in New York, away from the team, and in February Powell played just three games before injuring a foot, costing him seven weeks. March led to the season’s hardest stretch in Lue’s opinion, a five-game losing streak the Clippers might have broken had they extended key contributors’ minutes, only to pull back to keep Morris and Jackson fresh in case George and Powell were able to return.

Before tipoff Sunday afternoon, Lue thanked even the four players traded away this season for helping them navigate the most short-handed stretches in December and January.

“It was collective. It wasn’t just one person, one coach, it was everybody,” Lue said. “I’ve been pretty excited about the journey we had this year and where we’re at today.”

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