Everyone who lived, worked, or played in the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. This past summer has been affected by the experience – some quite deeply. Between isolation, separation from friends and family, the inability to escape the game – or even the Disney campus – the challenges presented by the bubble were unprecedented. And overall, the most successful teams in the playoffs were the ones that took on these challenges with the most poise.
This season was meant to be more normal, with home games and the chance 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 outbreak of injuries. among players – especially All-Star players in these playoffs. Just like last year, the most successful teams so far are those who have taken on the unprecedented challenges this season has presented.
The LA Clippers received a heavy blow on Tuesday night when they learned that 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 NBA team and community hard. Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James even took to Twitter for a I told you rant about the condensed season correlating with the loss of All-Star players to injury.
But the Clippers took the blow to the stomach in a remarkable way, stabilizing – and their season – with an impressive 119-111 road win on Wednesday night over the Utah Jazz behind 37 points, 16 rebounds and five assists from Paul George. . and 21 points from Reggie Jackson.
“It was the biggest game of our season,” George said after the game. “Especially being down from our best player. We knew that when we got into that we had to play together. We had to step up.”
There will be all kinds of theories being offered as to how LA found the courage and the guts to play at such a high level after receiving such bad news about their top player.
Maybe that’s the confidence they built from a tough seven-game streak against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round, in which the Clippers lost their first three home games but rallied for winning all three road games and then finally the seventh home game.
Maybe that was the whole experience of LA, playing without the often mismanaged or often injured Leonard who missed 36 games in his two seasons with the team. George has generally elevated his game when Leonard is out, averaging 25.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists, including a particularly good run last April averaging 29.2 points, 8 , 1 rebounds and 5.2 assists in seven games as Leonard came out with a painful right foot.
Maybe they stuck with the adjustments that started to work against Jazz from Game 3 – a small roster with Marcus Morris Sr. in the middle, trapping Jazz star Donovan Mitchell every time he tried to drive.
Whatever the case or cause, the Clippers lead this series 3-2 with a chance to advance to their first-ever Western Conference Final Friday night at Staples Center (10 p.m. ET on the ESPN / ESPN app), because So far, they have handled the unique and unprecedented challenges presented by this season well.
“We’ve been declining men all season,” Jackson said. “We feel like this has 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 understand what’s going on and I hope he will be back with us. “
It was a particularly 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 out of 12 of 22 shots. He also played strong defense, holding the Jazz 4 of 13, blocking two shots and forcing two turnovers.
George spoke very candidly last season about how the bubble environment affected his sanity. But this year, George has always said he left last season behind and is determined to create a new story for himself and his team this year.
After the shootout, he told Lue and his teammates, “I got us,” to believe he would take the team with Leonard.
“[George] said the same after the game, ‘Thank you for trusting me and believing in me throughout the season, “said Lue.” He was phenomenal. “
This is Lue’s approach with George all year round: show him confidence, focus on the future.
Of course, the future of the Clippers is still clouded by Leonard’s injury, which won’t be known until he can undergo further testing once the swelling in his knee is gone, sources told ESPN.
The future of Jazz has roughly the same predictions. All-star goalie Mike Conley Jr. missed the entire series with a hamstring injury. Mitchell was 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 regain his usual explosiveness and finished with 21 points on 6 of 19 shots.
“That’s what I’m learning right now,” Mitchell said after the game when asked about playing despite an injury. “For most of my life I’ve been able to push, jump, explode and pass people. And now I’m learning to play on the floor.
“This is something that I’m going to have to deal with [the rest of the playoffs]Mitchell continued. “It sucks. … You have to find a way to make it happen. It’s hard, but I have to find a way. Otherwise, I’ll be home. “