Part of the allure of having two superstars on the Clippers is that one of them is always on the court. Ty Lue has committed to a strict stagger of his two best players during the postseason, giving some stability for all 48 minutes.
That safety blanket went away in between Games 4 and 5 of the conference semifinals, and one of the key questions heading into the team’s first game without Kawhi Leonard was how the Clippers would perform when Paul George had to rest. Against Utah, L.A. had mixed results. The Clippers were plus-9 in George’s 40 minutes in Game 5, and minus-1 when he was on the bench, a perfectly reasonable result. In Game 6, the Clippers were outscored by eight in the two and a half minutes that George sat, but a plus-19 when he played.
In the opener of the conference finals, the Clippers weren’t as fortunate. They outscored the Suns by one in the 39 minutes George played, but lost the remainder by seven.
It’s reasonable to expect George’s minutes to increase slightly, but there will be at least 4-5 minutes when the Clippers have to figure out a competent offense and defense without George. There aren’t a lot of easy answers for how they can do that.
Rajon Rondo is the lone pick-and-roll operator on the Clippers other than George in Leonard’s absence. Rondo was able to get to the rim on screens from Ivica Zubac, but lacked finishing touch at the basket earlier in the game. He did make all three of his shot attempts in the fourth quarter, so perhaps Rondo is rounding into form offensively.
Rondo will get opportunities to run the offense as the backup point guard — Ty Lue has essentially confirmed that — so he has to deliver for the Clippers to be successful.
“I just like his pace,” Lue said about Rondo after practice Monday. “I think when Reggie goes out of the game, when PG is out of the game, we don’t have Kawhi to play through. So I think we need his pace and the way he generates shots for Luke Kennard, Nic Batum, finding Cousins a lot. I think his pace is very important, especially when you lose a scorer like Kawhi, who is our leading scorer on the team. You need somebody who is going to generate pace and generate shots for other guys, as well.”
The Clippers can also deliver the ball to DeMarcus Cousins in the post, which proved quite effective against Dario Sarić in particular. That has limited utility, because the Suns can fairly easily stop Cousins with Deandre Ayton, but posting up Cousins during those few minutes is at least a stop gap.
L.A. also has another ball handler in Luke Kennard, but they’d prefer him to be a shooter and scorer rather than slow the game down to make decisions as a facilitator, as Kennard noted Monday.
“I’ve got to be ready to shoot at all times,” Kennard said. “It’s just creating space, creating separation to get my shots, and just being ready to shoot the ball. That’s my role and any time I’m out there, that’s kind of my mentality: staying ready to shoot. We’ve got guys that will make plays and can pass the ball really well.”
Even if the Clippers can get viable offensive contributions out of non-George players, the defensive challenge remains. Cousins and Kennard aren’t particularly good defenders, and playing the two of them together only exacerbates the problem. Players like Patrick Beverley and Batum can only do so much to hide the others’ faults, so it might behoove the Clippers to lean more on zone defense.
The Clippers sprinkled in some zone in Game 1; but it’s instructive to look back at Game 2 against Utah, when the Clippers leaned heavily on the zone in the second half to slow down the Jazz, and it worked to change the tide of the matchup.
The team also just has to clean up its defensive mistakes. After the game Sunday, Cousins said, “We had some miscommunications, some missed assignments defensively, over-helping in some situations, missing rotations. There were a lot of things that were correctible on our end tonight that played a big part in the results of the game today.”
George has done his part to keep the Clippers afloat in Leonard’s absence, but earning wins against the Suns will be a team effort. The supporting cast has to be better on both ends on Tuesday.