Kawhi Leonard uncertainty has made it difficult for the Clippers to climb the Western standings

LOS ANGELES — Often times when the LA Clippers are firing, All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard is on the court early to get his work done on one of the courts far away. It wasn't the morning of a big Western Conference matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Tuesday.

The Clippers listed Leonard as questionable for the game because of left hip soreness, the ailment that led to Leonard missing Sunday's 124-117 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. All-Star forward Paul George also missed Sunday's game with a sore left knee. The Clippers listed point guard James Harden as questionable Sunday because of a sore left shoulder, but he played.

All three players played through a questionable position earlier in the day, a 112-102 matinee victory over the Chicago Bulls that saw the Clippers blow a 14-point first half deficit. But the NBA's oldest team is trying to balance the race for the top seed in the West by securing its stars for a postseason run.

Tuesday night showed just how delicate that balance is, and how the Clippers are increasingly climbing uphill to maintain control. Although the 32-year-old Leonard started against the Timberwolves alongside the 33-year-old George and played the entire opening quarter, he did not return to the game in the second quarter. Leonard was unable to stay in the arena because of what the Clippers called thoracic spasms that made it painful for him to sit down and was ejected at halftime.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after a 118-100 loss to the Timberwolves. “He wasn't sure if he was going to go this morning. But he came to shoot, got treatment, did what he had to do, got on the court today and tried to play and it didn't slow down for him.

When Leonard left downtown Los Angeles to rest at home, the Clippers led 59-37 with five minutes to play in the first half. They outscored the Timberwolves by 13 in the first quarter with Leonard playing, then won by nine in the first seven minutes of the second quarter without Leonard. Over the next 27.5 minutes, the Timberwolves outscored the Clippers 83-39 as part of a 44-point turnaround, winning the regular-season series 3-1.

It was the second time in two weeks the Clippers lost by more than 20 points, and the third straight week they lost after leading by at least 15 points. Unlike last week's loss in Milwaukee or February's loss against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Clippers didn't even hold a game late as they became the rare team to lead by more than 20 points and trail by more than 20 points. In the same game.

It's not just this game,” Harden said Tuesday night. “It's a Milwaukee game in Milwaukee, you watch a Lakers game. You know, I can point to some games. It's not about another team. It is about us. That's what we preach, that's it. It doesn't matter who we pretend to be. If we are healthy and our energy is right, it doesn't matter who we play.

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If the Clippers had won just those three games, they would have been 44-20. That would have been enough to finish behind the third-place Timberwolves (45-21) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (45-20) and Denver Nuggets (45-20) in the West. The top team.

But the Clippers (41-23) are now 3.5 games behind the Thunder and Nuggets. The Thunder hold a 2-1 tiebreaker over the Clippers. Moving up in the standings will be difficult for the Clippers, and now they have to worry about being close to the team that passes them in the standings rather than being in first place.

The New Orleans Pelicans have the longest hitting streak in the league (four games) and will host the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are without starters Evan Mobley and Max Struss. All-Star Donovan Mitchell's return from a knee injury that sidelined him all of March is questionable. Suppose the Pelicans (39-25) beat the Cavaliers on Wednesday and the Clippers lose Thursday's road game against the Chicago Bulls. In that case, that would set up a game that could see the Pelicans on Friday night in New Orleans, where the Clippers have lost 10 of 12 regular-season games, passing LA for fourth in the West.

Lue said Tuesday that he wasn't sure if Leonard would be around for the upcoming two-game road trip: “I hope so.” Leonard dealing with his groin and mid-back issues doesn't look good for his chances of traveling, let alone playing, on the return days of Chicago and New Orleans. Tuesday's chaotic performance, with Leonard out, wasn't the first time the Clippers have lost their composure at the serious level.

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On March 31, 2023, Leonard started against the Memphis Grizzlies and helped the Clippers take a 20-point lead in the first half, only to sit out the rest of the game the next night for the first back-to-back of the season. In New Orleans. The result: a 22-point Grizzlies lead and a 42-point turnaround.

On Tuesday, the already short-handed Clippers, without Russell Westbrook due to surgery on his left hand, came out of the locker room without Leonard and turned in his worst third quarter of the season, scoring just 15 points.

The Timberwolves held them to just 4-of-13 shooting. George alone had more turnovers than Clippers had baskets in that third quarter (five). Timberwolves All-Star Anthony Edwards dominated the Clippers multiple times, stripping George with his defense for the final tie or lead change in the third:

“I mean, they're going to be more aggressive knowing they're going to wear our ballers down,” George said after he and Harden combined to commit several turnovers Tuesday (nine). “I think taking more of the full court. I mean, for the most part, that's the same Achilles' heel that we have. It's giving up offensive rebounds. The transition, we were good to start the season, but we had a skid there.

“But I think more than anything, we need to try a little more.”

In the 18-point win, the Timberwolves had 11 more offensive rebounds while forcing seven more turnovers. The Clippers scored just 37 second-half points against the Timberwolves, the NBA's best defense. The Clippers were last held under half a point on the road against the Golden State Warriors in early March of 2023. Both nights, Lue lamented the level of morale the Clippers consistently maintained against teams with higher morale.

“It's just being tough mentally,” Lue said, noting the Timberwolves are playing without All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns due to knee surgery. “They are a good team without KAT. They're going to score runs and we can't drop our heads and, you know, feel sorry for ourselves. … They had 27 more shots than we had. We committed 19 turnovers for 24 points. They scored 27 points in transition. They recovered 19 tackles.

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“I mean, you can go down the list. A lot of things we didn't do well. I thought they were tougher than us. They played tougher than us and that's the result.

While the Clippers' other stars have missed time, Harden has played in 59 games, his longest streak in seven years. But he shot 41.0 percent after the All-Star break after shooting 45.0 percent.

When Harden left the floor after the All-Star break, showing how dependent the offense is on Harden playing and being good, the team averaged 106.8 points per 100 possessions. But the Clippers are 23.0 points worse defensively than Harden on the floor, and his turnovers provide instant points to opponents.

“My turnover wasn't forced by anybody else,” Harden said Tuesday. “They were all on me. So something I could control, I could excel at. And I would.

If this was last year's Western Conference, perhaps this season's Clippers will be in a much safer spot. But no team has more games left (18) to end the season than the Clippers. After visiting the Portland Trail Blazers for a mini-series next week, the Clippers won't have any games until the regular season ends on April 14 with two days of rest.

Between now and then, the Clippers will have to survive teams that decide to run, drive and crash the offensive glass as much as possible. Or, as Edwards puts it, take advantage of the “irrelevant few.”

Runs are part of the game; “I think it's just a matter of getting good shots and not turning the basketball over and giving your defense a chance to come back and set up.” Harden said Tuesday before walking slowly out of the locker room. “Every game is important for us.”

(Top photo of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Edwards: Gary A. Vasquez / USA TODAY)

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