Coaches riding a three-game losing streak rarely appear as upbeat as Tyronn Lue did Tuesday.
The Clippers’ coach had good reason, having begun his pregame videoconference with a statement he hadn’t been able to say since April 11 — guard Patrick Beverley was healthy enough to play that evening. That return followed All-Star Kawhi Leonard’s own, three nights earlier, after a foot injury had cost him two weeks. The team’s other All-Star, Paul George, was coming off his best month of the season after learning how to manage persistent pain in a bruised toe bone.
“I think the vibe of the team is we’re happy we’re starting to get healthy,” Lue said.
Afforded only two weeks before the postseason to test long-anticipated lineups delayed by injuries, Lue’s position isn’t exactly enviable. To some of his peers, however, even that much time with a mostly healthy roster this late in the season feels like a luxury.
“He ought to be pretty happy,” Toronto’s Nick Nurse said. “Everybody that plays has multiple, multiple impact players out.”
Case in point: The Clippers’ opponent Thursday — and potentially in the first round of the playoffs too.
The Lakers’ inability to stay healthy has left them fighting to stay out of the NBA’s play-in tournament while creating a scenario that is the inverse of last season, where the Lakers progressively got stronger as the Clippers’ case for championship contention weakened.
During the Lakers’ 21-6 start, Dennis Schroder, LeBron James and Anthony Davis played 442 minutes together, outscoring opponents by 130 points.
In 38 games since, a span that saw Davis miss 30 games with a calf strain and tendinosis, that trio has shared just 26 minutes together.
The 544 minutes James and Davis have shared during just 25 games this season make the Clippers’ struggles to keep their star pairing of Leonard and George healthy almost pale in comparison; that duo has played 929 minutes together in 39 games.
James will miss Thursday’s matchup and will be day-to-day going forward, coach Frank Vogel said, after his return from a serious ankle injury was cut short after two games. Schroder, their other primary ballhandler, is unavailable after entering the league’s health and safety protocols. Talen Horton-Tucker, who has averaged 11.2 points and 3.4 assists since April 1, is questionable to face the Clippers because of a strained calf.
Using Davis as a pick-and-roll option, as the Lakers did out of necessity in Monday’s win against Denver, might be replicated.
“That’s all we’re talking about right now is just short-term reinventing ourselves while those guys are out,” Vogel said. “Alex [Caruso] and Talen are going to handle the ball as much as possible, play traditionally. But everybody has got to be able to handle the rock and we have to have more of a multiple ballhandler approach with our offense.”
At the position where the Lakers do have depth, the Clippers are missing their final piece. Center Serge Ibaka, whose absence since March 14 has been attributed only to a sore back, has no target date for his return, Lue said Tuesday.
“Trying to get used to getting hit again, getting banged, the physicality of the game, that’s gonna take some time, especially when you come off the situation that he’s going through right now and that’s to be expected,” Lue said.
Ivica Zubac, the former Laker, has made a significant case to remain the starter even when Ibaka is healthy. Zubac could face any of the Lakers’ rotating cast at center: Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond or former teammate Montrezl Harrell.
Conversely, while the Lakers are a point guard down, the backcourt is where the Clippers’ logjam lies since Beverley rejoined a rotation that already included guards Reggie Jackson — who made the clinching three-pointer against Toronto on Tuesday in his 40th start this season — former Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, Terance Mann and Luke Kennard.
Lue couldn’t answer how he’ll juggle backcourt minutes, saying he coaches by feel and matchups in the playoffs. A starter until fracturing his hand in early April, Beverley said he would play whatever role Lue wanted. Leonard and George also are playing out of their normal rotations for the time being, probably until Leonard’s minutes limit is lifted. Lue essentially has flip-flopped his All-Stars’ usage, with George now playing the entire first quarter and Leonard playing only a portion before returning in the second with a bench unit.
“I’d rather switch that up, but with minutes restrictions it’s kind of tough right now,” Lue said.
Getting healthier was only the first step to rounding into playoff form, the Clippers cautioned. That was why when Beverley arrived for his first postgame interview in nearly one month Tuesday night, he didn’t crack a smile.
“To go the place where we want to go,” Beverley said, “our mentality and approach has to be different.”
“When you play teams that [are] not so good, you know no discredit anything in NBA, and you win a lot of games, you think that you’re playing well until you play a really good team, and things that you’re not good at seems to jump off the page. So, approach. And this is a thing that we can correct.”
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 570, 710, 1330.
Update: Zubac (64.4%) andHarrell (62.7%) rank third and eighth in the league this season in field goal percentage, among players with at least 1,000 minutes. … When Rondo played last season, the Lakers’ defense got worse, giving up 2.8 points per 100 possessions more than when he sat. That’s flipped since Rondo joined the Clippers in March. With Rondo playing, their defense is giving up 103.0 points per 100 possessions; when he sits, it rises to 112.3.
Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.