The latest on Kawhi Leonard’s injury and where the Clippers stand in the crowded West



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Observers can never be too comfortable when it comes to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of the LA Clippers. It’s never as bad as it seems when the Clippers have unseemly losses. But just when they catch some prosperity, something always comes up.

Before arriving in Sacramento on Tuesday, the Clippers earned a critical three-game win streak. Perhaps with a nod to the upcoming schedule and importance of finishing the season healthy, the Clippers deactivated All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard due to what the team called “right knee soreness.”

Without their star, the Clippers fell to the Kings 109-95 and dropped to 47-28 on the season. Their chances of rising above fourth place in the Western Conference standings are becoming increasingly remote.

For all of the sirens on Leonard’s health this season, it was encouraging that the two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player had only missed consecutive games once this season, and that was when Leonard missed the last four games of December due to a left hip contusion.

But Leonard, who has had to overcome a torn ACL and torn meniscus in his right knee, is now set to miss a second straight game on Thursday, when the Clippers welcome the Nuggets to Crypto.com Arena. Leonard did not even generate a questionable tag ahead of Thursday’s game and has already been ruled out.

That’s where things get interesting for the Clippers.

The only Clippers’ road game the rest of the season is a short flight to complete a home-and-home back-to-back with the Phoenix Suns next week. That would be nice if the Clippers were dominant at home, but they have been terrible in downtown Los Angeles as of late, losing five straight games and trailing by double-digits at some point during 10 of their last 12 home games. They also haven’t won a home game since March 9, and have more road wins (25-15) than home wins (22-13).

“I think it’s just an alertness,” Clippers forward Paul George said in Orlando when asked about the Clippers not playing as well at home. “You understand that you are playing against the opposing team’s crowd and everybody’s going against you. And I think off rip, you want to get off to a good jump. You want to kind of be locked in and focused and alert, all of that stuff.”

Mathematically, the Clippers are guaranteed no lower than the 10th and final Play-In spot in the West. With fewer than two weeks to go, the Clippers have a three-game lead in the loss column over the New Orleans Pelicans, Kings and Suns for a top-six seed, which ensures staying out of the Play-In Tournament.

The Clippers are trying to hold off both the Suns and Kings for the franchise’s first Pacific Division title since 2014, an important accomplishment for tiebreaker purposes. The Kings’ win on Tuesday night kept the Clippers from winning that regular-season series, and LA still needs one win in its two games against the Suns next week to clinch that regular-season series. The Kings and Suns split their season series this year, though Phoenix went from eighth to sixth in the West after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers Wednesday night.

A trickier task for the Clippers is holding off the Dallas Mavericks and Pelicans, two teams leading the Southwest Division. The Clippers have a two-game lead in the loss column over the Mavericks, and a 2 1/2 game lead over the Pelicans after the Orlando Magic won in New Orleans Wednesday; the Pelicans dropped to seventh in the West entering Thursday, their lowest ranking since Feb. 9.

The Clippers only have a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Mavericks, who they beat in two of the three meetings this season (and before Dallas made multiple trades to upgrade their talent). The Pelicans have beaten the Clippers in three of the four meetings and 11 of 13 times going back to March 2021.

The Clippers shouldn’t have to worry too much about the Los Angeles Lakers or Golden State Warriors, the two teams that occupy the final two Play-In spots. The Clippers hold a five-game lead in the loss column on the Lakers, which is hard to make up with such few games left in the season. The Clippers’ lead over the Warriors is even more secure, with six games in the loss column and the regular-season series tiebreaker (Clippers beat Warriors three out of four games).

But the Lakers, Warriors and 11th-place Houston Rockets all will figure into the teams acutely chasing the Clippers, in addition to their own Play-In Tournament survival chase. The Warriors have road games at the Lakers and Rockets; Golden State will travel to Dallas and host the Pelicans; the Lakers will travel to New Orleans; and the Rockets will visit Dallas before their regular-season finale against the Clippers. Houston doesn’t have its first-round pick (though it does have Brooklyn’s, which is higher), so the Rockets are more likely to compete to their full potential than, say, the Utah Jazz.

Ultimately, the Clippers’ seed will comes down to how much they to lock in, especially at home. They have not shown that they are a trustworthy team with Leonard out of the lineup, going 3-4 this season. That does not include the disaster that was the Timberwolves home game last month, when Leonard left after one quarter and a 22-point Clippers lead turned into a 22-point deficit.

As a veteran team with championship aspirations, the Clippers will feel pressure from teams chasing them for the rest of the month. They’re also not good enough to think they can choose an opponent they would rather see. The Clippers will either sink or swim, and it will start at home with a head start on the rest of the West trying to chase them down.

“I think when you’re at home, you tend to feel you can play yourself into the game and the crowd is on your side, they’ll give you the energy,” George said. “Which, when you’re on the road, you create that. You create that energy and environment for your team. So I think that’s just how we got to approach being at home. Start with our energy, and allow our homecourt energy to kind of feed us. But we got to start with that energy to begin games.”

(Photo of Kawhi Leonard: Ezra Shaw / Getty Images)





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