Paul George still hoping for a return; Nicolas Batum lifts Clippers over Bulls
Paul George doesn’t know when he will be ready to return from his sprained right knee, “but I’m gonna do whatever I can do to shorten the process,” the Clippers’ All-Star forward said on his podcast.
The Clippers also are not in any position to make long-term plans — but they are trying to do whatever they can to extend how long they are playing, just in case a return for George is possible.
In their third game since George injured his knee, and with Kawhi Leonard scoring 22 points while back in a new starting lineup after he took an elbow to his face two nights earlier, the Clippers pushed past Chicago 124-112 on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena to keep a tenuous hold on a first-round playoff series.
With two games in Memphis and a third game at New Orleans coming this week, the Clippers (40-36) remain in fifth place, half a game behind Phoenix but only one game up on seventh place, a spot that will compete in the play-in tournament. Given how densely packed the Western Conference standings remain, there is much work to do. But two nights after a forgettable, 21-point blowout loss to the Pelicans, the Clippers were rejuvenated by new starter Nicolas Batum, whose efficiency carried over throughout the roster.
Batum learned he would start Sunday night and will remain the starting forward, in place of Marcus Morris Sr., the rest of the regular season. Coach Tyronn Lue wouldn’t commit to whether Robert Covington will slide into a backup role or whether Morris still will have a role. Such a move had been discussed internally since early March, but making the change marks a significant shift, as Morris has been a mainstay of the starting lineup since 2021.
Leonard said Batum adds pace and defense to the starting unit.
“It was nothing that Marcus did wrong, just trying something different,” Lue said. “And when you’re not playing well, you want to try something different, and Marcus was all for it. We have to sacrifice if we want to win at a high level.”
A starting lineup that had dragged in the previous two games shot 65% from the field, including 59% (16 for 27) on three-pointers, and produced 25 assists against seven turnovers. Batum made a season-high eight three-pointers and scored 24 points. He hit three of the triples during a third quarter in which the Clippers pulled away from the Bulls (36-39), who beat the Lakers the day before.
“I was pretty much wide open on every single shot,” Batum said. “I like to play like that.”
George did not suffer ligament damage in the knee, and the team doesn’t believe surgery is necessary.
“I don’t know when that [return] date is, but the last thing I can do is not be involved with what’s going on because who knows how long injuries take,” George said on an episode of “Podcast P” that was taped late last week but released Monday morning.
Nonetheless, reinforcements are coming soon. Backup guard Norman Powell is expected to play during the road trip for the first time since he injured his left shoulder March 2. Lue said he will use a nine-man rotation upon Powell’s return.
“We need him back. We need his juice. We need his scoring,” Lue said of Powell, who had become an NBA sixth man of the year candidate before he injured his non-shooting shoulder. He had made 52% of his shots inside the arc and 41% of his three-pointers while possessing an ability, unique on the roster, to draw shooting fouls.
George’s knee bent backward upon his landing last Tuesday while he battled Oklahoma City’s Luguentz Dort for a rebound. He described feeling “throbbing” pain.
“The only thing going through my mind was: ‘I hope I didn’t tear no major s—. I hope I didn’t blow anything,’ ” George said. “I was like: ‘Damn. Is this it? Is this what it feels like when you tear your ACL, when you tear your MCL? Is this that injury right here?’ ”
Though one of the podcast co-hosts, Jackie Long, said “dirty player” in reference to Dort, George said he didn’t believe Dort’s play was malicious.
George said he has watched the Clippers’ games closely since his injury to remain engaged. If he watched Monday, he saw a reunion of Russell Westbrook (12 points, 10 assists, three turnovers) and Patrick Beverley (nine points), the longtime combatants turned Lakers teammates this season before both were traded in February. Both, incidentally, are close friends of George.
Last month, as the Clippers decided how to fill their final roster spot, the team considered both guards before ultimately signing Westbrook.
“I thought I was gonna be everywhere,” Beverley said, grinning, when asked whether he had thought he would reunite with the Clippers.
The two embraced before tipoff, then Westbrook promptly made a jump shot while drawing a foul on Beverley — and celebrated with his “rock the baby” gesture.
It was part of the fast start Lue asked for after the Clippers fell behind early in their two previous games following George’s injury.
The combination of Batum, Westbrook and Eric Gordon had been used sparingly before Monday but played impressively on short notice.
The team said Morris was unavailable because of illness.
“Tonight we get to see more of it, and going forward,” Lue said before tipoff.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.