Every person who lived, worked or played in the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, last summer was affected by the experience — some rather profoundly. Between the isolation, the separation from friends and family, the inability to escape from the game — or even the Disney campus — the challenges presented by the bubble were unprecedented. And by and large, the teams who were the most successful in the playoffs were those who handled those challenges with the most aplomb.
This season was supposed to be more normal, with games back in home arenas and the ability to see family and friends. But there was nothing normal about this season, either, with its condensed schedule, constant COVID-19 testing, games lost due to health and safety protocols, and of course the rash of injuries to players — especially All-Star players in these playoffs. Just as it was last year, the teams who have been most successful thus far are those who have handled the unprecedented challenges this season has presented.
The LA Clippers were dealt a tremendous blow Tuesday night when they learned All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard had suffered a sprained right knee and would miss at least Game 5 of their second-round series.
The news hit the team, and the NBA community, hard. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James even took to Twitter for an I-told-you-so rant about the condensed season correlating with All-Star players being lost to injuries.
But the Clippers took the punch to the gut in remarkable fashion, steadying themselves — and their season — with an impressive 119-111 win on the road against the Utah Jazz behind 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists from Paul George and 21 points from Reggie Jackson.
“This was the biggest game of our season,” George said after the game. “Especially being down our best player. We knew coming into this, we had to play together. We had to step up.”
There will be all kinds of theories offered on how LA found the grit and the gumption to play at such a high level after receiving such bad news about their best player.
Perhaps it was the confidence they built from a tough seven-game series against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, when the Clippers lost their first three home games, but rallied to win all three road games and then finally, Game 7 at home.
Perhaps it was all the experience LA has, playing without the oft-load managed or injured Leonard, who has missed 36 games in his two seasons with the team. George has typically elevated his game when Leonard is out, averaging 25.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, including an especially good run this past April when he averaged 29.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists in seven games while Leonard was out with right foot soreness.
Perhaps they just stuck with the adjustments that started working against the Jazz starting in Game 3 — a small lineup with Marcus Morris Sr. at center, trapping Jazz star Donovan Mitchell whenever he tried to drive.
Whatever the case or cause, the Clippers are leading this series 3-2 with a chance to advance to their first-ever Western Conference finals Friday night at Staples Center (10 p.m. ET on ESPN/ESPN App), because thus far they’ve handled the unique and unprecedented challenges presented by this season well.
“We’ve been playing men down all season,” Jackson said. “We feel like it prepared us for this moment and we don’t want our journey to end here. We want to give [Leonard] a chance to rest and figure out what’s going on and hopefully he’ll be back with us.”
It was an especially satisfying win for the oft-maligned George, who came out aggressively with 10 points in the first quarter, 22 in the first half and a total of 37 on 12-of-22 shots. He also played stout defense, holding the Jazz to 4-of-13 shooting, blocking two shots and forcing two turnovers.
George spoke very candidly last season about the ways the bubble environment affected his mental health. But this year George has consistently said he has put last season behind him, and was determined to create a new story for himself and his team this year.
After shootaround, he told Lue and his teammates, “I got us,” to trust that he would carry the team with Leonard out.
“[George] said the same thing after the game, ‘Thank you for trusting and believing in me all season long,'” Lue said. “He’s been phenomenal.”
That’s been Lue’s approach with George all year: show him trust, focus on the future.
Of course the Clippers’ future is still clouded by the injury to Leonard, which will not be known until he can have further testing done once the swelling in his knee subsides, sources told ESPN.
The Jazz’s future has much the same forecast. All-Star guard Mike Conley has missed the entire series with a hamstring injury. Mitchell has been noticeably hampered by an ankle injury, which cost him 16 games in the regular season. Mitchell was often seen wincing in pain Wednesday night in Game 5, as he struggled to find his usual explosiveness and finished with 21 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
“That’s what I’m learning right now,” Mitchell said after the game when asked about playing through injury. “For most of my life, I’ve been able to push by, jump by, explode and go over people. And now I’m learning to play on the floor.
“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with [the rest of the playoffs],” Mitchell continued. “It f—ing sucks. … You’ve got to find a way to make it happen. It’s tough, but I’ve got to find a way. Otherwise, I’m going to be home.”