Clippers prepare for playoffs by resting starters in loss to Rockets


Kawhi Leonard sat on the Clippers bench Sunday once again dressed in a sweatsuit, right next to Paul George, who was next to James Harden, the team’s three stars not playing in the final regular-season game before the team begins the playoffs.

The big mystery surrounds Leonard and his status for the Clippers’ first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks that will start Sunday at Crypto.com Arena. He didn’t play against the Houston Rockets at home Sunday because of right knee inflammation. He has missed the last eight games with knee issues.

The fourth-seeded Clippers made no assurances that Leonard would play when the series starts.

“He’s not playing today,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said before his team’s 116-105 loss to the Rockets in L.A.’s last regular-season game before moving to Intuit Dome in Inglewood next season.

By the time the playoffs start for the Clippers either on Sunday, Leonard will not have played in a game in three weeks.

Leonard was last in a game against Charlotte on March 31, one in which he played 37 minutes and had 23 points, five rebounds and four assists. He complained of knee soreness after that game and hasn’t played since.

So, Lue was asked, has Leonard been working out?

“Yeah, he’s been doing something,” Lue said.

Clippers guard Amir Coffey, left, is fouled by Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. on a drive down the lane Sunday.

Clippers guard Amir Coffey, left, is fouled by Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr. on a drive down the lane Sunday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

So, do you expect Leonard to play in the playoffs?

“I didn’t say anything,” Lue said.

So, what are you telling the media?

“I didn’t tell you nothing,” Lue said. “He’s not playing tonight and we’ll see.”

So, is Leonard feeling fine?

“He’s feels OK.”

The Clippers will need a healthy Leonard to beat a Dallas team with perhaps the best backcourt in the NBA in Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

Last year in the playoffs, when the Clippers met the Phoenix Suns, Leonard averaged 34.5 points. But he played in only two games, his time cut short because of a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Without Leonard, who has sat out 14 games this season, against the Rockets, the Clippers pushed forward with their available players.

Terance Mann was the only regular starter in the lineup, and he was joined by Xavier Moon, Mason Plumlee, P.J. Tucker and Amir Coffey.

“It’s been good for us to be able to clinch the No.4 spot and know who we’re playing and we don’t have to play these last two games and fight for our lives and stay out of the play-in or certain matchups to get to a certain position,” Lue said. “So, I’m just glad that we were able to clinch as early as we did. … I’m just glad we were able to kind of get some rest knowing our history. I’m happy about where we’re at.”

Clippers center Mason Plumlee elevates above Rockets defenders for a close-range shot Sunday.

Clippers center Mason Plumlee elevates above Rockets defenders for a close-range shot Sunday.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Having clinched the fourth spot early and knowing that their opponent would be Dallas has turned into a positive for the Clippers.

It allowed the notorious workaholic Lue to begin playoff preparations early.

The Clippers won the season series against the Mavericks, 2-1, but the two teams haven’t played each other since Dallas traded for center Daniel Gafford and forward P.J. Washington.

“It’s a lot of preparation,” Lue said. “Probably too much time. A lot of overthinking. But it gives you a chance to kind of lock in to what they’re doing, how they try to attack teams and what you can take away. So, it’s good to have the time.”

Time that Lue has spent looking at ways to deal with the always dangerous Doncic, which will be no easy task.

Doncic, a most valuable player candidate, led the NBA in scoring (33.9), was second in three-pointers made (4.1) and third in assists (9.8). He also averaged 9.2 rebounds.

“He’s been great since I’ve seen him play,” Lue said. “He’s been a tough matchup for us since he’s been in the league. So, you just got to pick your poison, I think you got to give him different coverages. You can’t let him get comfortable. But he’s seen everything. He’s seen double teams, he’s seen fires, he’s seen blitzes, one-on-one coverages. He’s seen switches, like, he’s seen everything. So, you got to pick your poison and try to keep him off balanced as best as possible, which is hard to do.”

Etc.

The Clippers announced that they have signed Kai Jones and have waived Joshua Primo.



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