With Kawhi Leonard back in the fold, the Clippers are all out of excuses

No more excuses. 

Whatever happens in these playoffs for the LA Clippers, they need to own their success or failure. There are no more ‘”what ifs” or “buts.” There’s no finger pointing or asterisks. 

For the first time since the NBA Bubble five years ago, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are healthy in the postseason, with Leonard returning Tuesday from a nine-game absence because of knee inflammation in the Clippers’ 96-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.

Without a hobbled superstar on the bench, without a knee injury to blame for their early postseason exits, they’ll finally get an unwarped peek at themselves in the mirror. 

“I feel great about it,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said. 

Win or lose, the Clippers are going to have to accept this as reality. Perhaps it’s both equally thrilling and terrifying for a franchise that has a lot on the line this offseason, including the future of their Big Two. 

While Leonard agreed to a three-year extension worth up to $152.7 million in January, George has yet to follow suit and could become a free agent this summer by declining his $48.8 million player option for the 2024-25 season.

So, this postseason is key for a franchise that’s trying to reach their first NBA Finals in their 53-year history. 

So far, they’ve looked like a team that could make a deep run. They won Game 1 without Leonard on Sunday. Game 2 was less convincing, which isn’t too surprising considering Leonard was clearly struggling to find his legs following not having played in 23 days. 

But the bigger takeaway from Game 2 is that the Clippers didn’t show any quit. 

After falling into a nine-point hole with 1 minute 27 seconds left following a stepback 3-pointer from Luka Dončić that inspired him to repeatedly roar at the crowd, they refused to waive the white flag, cutting their deficit to just three points twice, including when George made a 3-pointer at the buzzer. 

With Games 3 and 4 in Dallas, the Clippers need to readjust to their star player quickly. 

“Kawhi is one of the best in the world,” said George, who had 22 points and four assists. “He’s going to find his rhythm. We’re going to find our rhythm around him.”

As for Leonard, he put the loss on his shoulders. 

“We’ve got to be better as a unit overall, and it starts with me,” said Leonard, who had 15 points on 7-for-17 shooting, seven rebounds and four steals in 35 minutes. “Even if my wind is low, I’ve got to find a way.”

[2024 NBA Championship odds: Celtics favored for Finals; Nuggets closing in]

After acquiring Leonard in the offseason in 2019 and then trading for George, it seemed as though the Clippers could be real contenders. But that hasn’t materialized. They blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the playoffs against Denver in 2020, and they’ve since struggled with injuries.

In 2021, Leonard suffered a torn ACL in the playoffs and the Clippers went on to lose to the Phoenix Suns in their first Western Conference Finals appearance. Leonard missed the following season and the Clippers missed the playoffs. Last year, the Clippers were eliminated in the first round, with George missing the series and Leonard only playing in two games because of injuries. 

Now, everyone is healthy. Or as healthy as they’re going to get. Not to mention, the Clippers acquired two more Hall of Famers in Russell Westbrook last season and James Harden in October. 

So, no more excuses. 

Either the Clippers will meet expectations this time around. Or they’ll fall short. 

Either way, they’ll have no one to point to other than their own reflection.

Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.

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