If the season had ended Tuesday, what took place in Portland would have been a first-round playoff preview between the West’s third- and sixth-place teams.
The Clippers and Trail Blazers, though, are more than happy the regular season will last four more weeks. Because what took place inside Moda Center, during a 113-112 Clippers victory, looked little like the attack either hopes to replicate in the postseason.
On the home bench, wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, was Trail Blazers All-Star guard Damian Lillard, who sat out his third consecutive game because of a hamstring injury. Portland coach Terry Stotts did not offer an update on Lillard’s recovery. Starting center Enes Kanter also did not play.
Watching from his own sideline seat in a gray sweatsuit the length of the court away was Clippers All-Star Kawhi Leonard, whom the team ruled out until at least next week because of soreness in his right foot — a move coach Tyronn Lue called precautionary. Not even on the bench, of course, were injured starters Patrick Beverley, whose fractured left hand is expected to be reevaluated in roughly two weeks, and Serge Ibaka, who hasn’t played since March 14 because of his back.
Leonard, who missed three games last week because of the foot, only to return Sunday, “wants to play,” Lue said, but the coach made clear the team won’t take the risk with the Clippers comfortably near the top of the West standings.
“With the doctors and sports science guys and the trainers we have, sometimes we got to protect the players from themselves,” Lue said. “And right now, we are doing the right thing by Kawhi.”
Doing the right thing for Leonard created a familiar challenge for his teammates — playing short-handed in a game in which the Clippers (41-19) never got comfortable shooting the ball or made the Trail Blazers uncomfortable handling it and yet still emerged victorious after Paul George made two free throws with 4.8 seconds left to take a one-point lead, and C.J. McCollum couldn’t make his leaning jumper from the elbow with one second left.
George scored 10 of his 33 points in the final four minutes.
The starting lineup — the 21st different combination of the Clippers’ season — was a departure from Lue’s norms. Instead of Luke Kennard starting in Leonard’s place as usual, Terance Mann got the nod because of his defense. Without Lillard to blitz and trap, as the Clippers did relentlessly while holding the All-Star to 17.9% shooting in two previous victories, they tried shifting that strategy to Lillard’s backcourt partner, McCollum, and gave Mann the first defensive assignment.
The difference between this game and the two previous, in which Portland averaged a dozen turnovers, was that its ballhandlers appeared largely unbothered, with only two first-half turnovers — none by McCollum, who had 12 of his points and three assists at the break. The Trail Blazers could have held a larger halftime advantage than four, but their defense couldn’t hold on to a 10-point lead late in the second quarter, a lost edge that proved important in the final seconds. Portland finished with just six turnovers.
Unable to lean on Leonard, their leading scorer, the Clippers turned to sources both familiar and unexpected for offense. George, who scored at least 30 points for the sixth time in his last seven games, provided a constant stream of baskets despite one of his worst shooting performances from beyond the three-point arc this season, going two for eight. Marcus Morris also struggled to connect from deep, but scored 16 points on a night when the Clippers uncharacteristically made just three of 13 corner three-point tries — after entering the game shooting 47% from there.
To fill in the gaps, they received 11 points in just 13 minutes off the bench from center DeMarcus Cousins. If his contributions can’t be counted on come the postseason, given the nature of his 10-day contract, the strong play of Rajon Rondo is something the Clippers hope will carry over in the first round. He finished with nine points and seven assists, with six rebounds, in his 22 minutes.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday.
On the air: TV: Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 570, 1330.
Update: Memphis (29-27) could have big man Jaren Jackson Jr. back for the first time since he injured the meniscus in a knee last summer during the NBA restart, after he was upgraded to questionable ahead of the matchup. He would join a Grizzlies offense that owns the league’s top-ranked rating in April (120 points per 100 possessions), one spot ahead of the Clippers (118.8).
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.