Justise Winslow went on paternity leave on Nov. 14. Since then, he has played outside of garbage time — or an end-of-quarter defensive possession — once. In the interim, Amir Coffey, Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard, and Terance Mann have all made spot starts, and Brandon Boston Jr. has entered the rotation, but Winslow has remained glued to the bench.
In fairness, Winslow’s play hadn’t done much to warrant extra minutes. He hasn’t been able to hit a shot to save his life (14-of-32 on twos and 1-of-8 on threes entering Saturday’s game) and his resistance to shoot gums up the rest of the offense. For a team that already struggles to score, it’s hard to justify adding another non-spacer to the mix.
Ty Lue spoke about the challenges of getting Winslow into the rotation before Wednesday’s game against Boston, while acknowledging that the first-year Clipper hasn’t been given a complete opportunity to show what he is capable of.
Early morning Justise Winslow work. pic.twitter.com/0zb1y9jSVF— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) December 11, 2021
“He has done everything right, he works every single day, is in the gym, even off days, blackout days, he is in the gym, he is engaged in the shootarounds, what coverages, so he is going to get his opportunity,” Lue said. “There is nothing he has done wrong. It is just kind of like the makeup of our team right now, what we need on the floor and spacing the floor with shooting and things like that. He has been great, a true professional and we got to try to find a way to get him on the floor at some point.”
That opportunity came sooner than expected for Winslow. Paul George and Nicolas Batum were both out Saturday, and rather than turn to the other forwards who have been ahead of Winslow in the rotation, Lue said he wanted to go with the former Blue Devil to reward him for his hard work and to give him a shot.
Winslow didn’t make an immediate impact, but the extended minutes allowed him to finally find a rhythm. What really helped Winslow get going was securing defensive rebounds (or stealing the ball) and leading the break from the Clippers — that grab-and-go element helped turn the tide of the game as the Clippers outscored 26-14 in the second quarter, and were plus-9 in Winslow’s eight minutes.
“I thought he was able to rebound the ball and push it in transition, attack, get some easy shots,” Lue said postgame. “He had a cut one time but Isaiah threw it kind of hard to him, but able to get downhill, one time got a layup and he missed one layup, and he made a big 3 for us when they tied the game up. So just good to see him out there and I am happy for him.”
What Winslow did is what the Clippers do: when one man goes down, it’s the next man up, and they know how do their job. Whether that was Coffey defending every position against the Mavericks or Ibaka spacing the floor down the stretch against the Lakers or Boston putting up the team’s highest-scoring quarter of the season against the Celtics, every Clipper is capable of stepping up. Winslow played to his strengths by being active on defense and the glass and pushing the tempo, and when the time came for him to hit shots in the half court, his work paid off.
“We’ve been in those situations where guys get their name called, and especially like this guy right here made some big plays for us and played hard in the minutes that he got,” Luke Kennard said about Winslow. “So that’s what we expect and he’s been working and in the gym everyday early. So you know, he was due for it.”
Winslow hasn’t just been fighting for his place with the Clippers: It’s been nearly two years since he was able to contribute regularly to an NBA team, and that was two teams ago, after injuries marred his tenure with the Memphis Grizzlies. Now in Los Angeles, he is still facing an uphill battle to getting back on the court.
But all he can do is put in the work and stay ready for when opportunity knocks. For one day at least, it had to be satisfying to show the Clippers — and the league — what Justise Winslow can do.
“It felt good just to make all the winning plays that I did tonight, just go out there and impact the game,” Winslow said. “I know the player I’m capable of being and becoming, just staying with the grind, staying with it. But for me it’s just about impacting the game, filling up the stat sheet as much as I can, but there’s definitely a place for me to thrive on this roster.”