Clippers falter after halftime without Kawhi Leonard and lose to Grizzlies

The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard handles the ball against the Grizzlies' Ja Morant on March 31, 2023.
The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard handles the ball against the Grizzlies' Ja Morant. Leonard scored 12 points in the first half but didn't play after halftime because he intends to play Saturday in New Orleans. The Clippers lost 108-94. (Brandon Dill / Associated Press)
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When the Clippers returned to their sideline seats after Friday’s halftime break, they trailed the Memphis Grizzlies by four. Their 20-point lead was gone, and so, too, was about to be their best player.

After scoring 12 points in 18 first-half minutes, Kawhi Leonard watched from the sideline after halftime, his warmup top never removed, as the Clippers staggered to a 108-94 defeat and 41-37 record.

The team said his abbreviated night was the trade-off for allowing Leonard to be able to play Saturday in New Orleans, the first time the superstar will have played on consecutive nights since recovering from his 2021 knee injury. The Clippers have struggled to win without Leonard this season, and with Paul George sidelined at least two more weeks before his sprained right knee is reevaluated, their margin for error is slimmer.

Yet if the plan was to get three halves out of Leonard between Friday and Saturday, instead of the customary two, it was not widely shared within the FedEx Forum locker room.

“I don’t know if anybody knew,” point guard Russell Westbrook said. “But that was something that Kawhi and the medical staff figured out. But no, I didn’t know personally.”

With starting guard Eric Gordon also lost to a sore right hip for the second half, it “changes things a lot” with shifting offensive and defensive roles, Westbrook said.

“I don’t think we knew that, but it is what it is,” guard Norman Powell said. “Just got to to out there and play with the guys that we have and I don’t think that’s an excuse. It was a four-point game coming into the half.”

Coach Tyronn Lue, who has been frustrated this season by players’ unpredictable availability, said he was “not talking about it no more” when asked about Friday’s plan for Leonard, saying a team public relations official had already discussed the reasoning.

Powell scored 16 points to lead the Clippers and Ivica Zubac had 15 points and 15 rebounds. One game after combining for 63 points to power the Clippers with Leonard absent for personal reasons, Westbrook and forward Robert Covington struggled. Westbrook had fewer points (four) than turnovers (five) and Covington scored two points.

The Grizzlies' Desmond Bane, right, steals the ball from the Clippers' Ivica Zubac, middle. Dillon Brooks is at left.
The Grizzlies' Desmond Bane, right, steals the ball from the Clippers' Ivica Zubac, middle. Memphis' Dillon Brooks is at left. Zubac had 15 points and 15 rebounds in the loss. (Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Leonard, Lue said, was expected to play his full allotment in New Orleans. He did not have an update on whether Gordon would play.

“Big game for us tomorrow,” Lue said, “and we got to be ready to go.”

Losing Leonard was a blow, but the Clippers had begun to lose this game, and their footing in the extremely tight Western Conference standings, well before the change at halftime.

Westbrook and Powell said that though they hadn’t prepared to play without Leonard, it should have not forestalled a chance to win. Even on a night when Memphis (49-28) made just 27% of its three-pointers, and Ja Morant was limited to 10 points, it completed its comeback to lead by as many as 22 points.

If there were miscommunications on Leonard’s availability, there were also communication breakdowns that led to too many second-quarter turnovers, and too many open three-point looks for former Clipper Luke Kennard.

All of it unraveled what had been a nearly flawless start.

At tipoff, three fans wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with “WESTBRICK” across the chest took their courtside seats only feet from the Clippers’ sideline. Westbrook, who despises the nickname, promptly scored on the opening possession.

The Clippers built as much as a 20-point first-quarter lead by sharp execution. Terance Mann hounded Kennard around screens, forcing an offensive foul and Kennard to step out of bounds as coaches howled their approval.

The lead slipped away as the Clippers lost Kennard for four second-quarter three-pointers. Two days after being held to three three-point attempts, he took 10 of them and made five for 17 points.

“It’s just knowing personnel, losing track of him; we know what he’s in the game for,” Powell said.

The Grizzlies' Luke Kennard (10) reacts during a game against the Clippers on March 31, 2023.
The Grizzlies' Luke Kennard had a big night against his former team, the Clippers. He made five three-pointers and scored 17 points. (Brandon Dill / Associated Press)

Memphis also turned Clippers turnovers into 12 points in the second quarter. Gordon’s pass upcourt to Leonard, who wasn’t expecting it, was easily stolen and turned into an instant three-pointer by Desmond Bane. A few minutes later, center Ivica Zubac threw a pass to no one after a defensive stop that was caught feet from the hoop and turned into a layup.

Lineups with four guards that Lue expected would increase pace and scoring — Westbrook, Powell, Mann and Bones Hyland — did not help, outscored by 13 points in less than three minutes in the second quarter.

“This team only scoring 108 points at home, you can live with that,” Lue said. “... I thought we had a great first quarter and then after that we got a little stagnant and turned the basketball over.”

When the game as over, the fans in the “WESTBRICK” T-shirts happily posed for a picture. They got what they had came for. The Clippers, not so much.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.