PLAYA VISTA, Calif. — As he marvels at both Kawhi Leonard’s highlight reels and monotonous rehab, Clippers guard Reggie Jackson admitted his mind wanders elsewhere.
LA’s starting point guard often replays Leonard’s dunk over Dallas Mavericks center Maxi Klebler, a play that epitomized the superstar forward’s on-court dominance in the Clippers’ first-round playoff series win over Dallas and later appeared on one of Leonard’s sweatshirts.
Jackson also often wonders how the Clippers’ postseason would have ended had Leonard not injured his right ACL toward the end of the Clippers’ Game 4 win of their second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz.
“I’m not saying we’d be champs if he never got hurt,” Jackson said after practice on Friday. “But just with the way I’ve seen him approach the game, I was already in my mind envisioning a title.”
A year after the Clippers advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, the Clippers have still wrestled with unanswered questions pertaining to their star player. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue revealed that Leonard has only completed individual work within the past week, which ensures Leonard won’t return for the team’s last two regular seasons games against the Sacramento Kings and the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Nonetheless, the eighth-place Clippers have not formally ruled out Leonard for a potential playoff return beginning with a road Play-In game against the seventh-place Minnesota Timberwolves.
“When ‘Big Dog’ comes back, it’s gonna be on, for real,” Jackson said. “But we’re just happy to see his progress. We’re happy to have him in the building. We’re happy to see his few smiles that he throws in here and there.”
Those recent moments brought some needed levity to an otherwise challenging Clippers season filled with both uncertainty surrounding Leonard’s return and adjustments in mitigating his absence.
Ever since Leonard had offseason surgery on a torn ACL in his right knee, Clippers center Ivica Zubac admitted fielding endless questions from friends and family about Leonard’s status. After expressing uncertainty, Zubac reported hearing inquiries from the same family and friends nearly a week later.
“I got tired of it,” Zubac said. “I don’t even answer to people that ask me anymore.”
No wonder Zubac smirked and jokingly called for the “next question” when a reporter asked when Leonard would play again. Lue has also often offered evasiveness and vagueness pertaining to questions about Leonard.
The Clippers have dealt with something far more challenging than handling questions about Leonard’s rehab, which has elicited little insight both amid uncertainty and out of respect for Leonard’s quest for privacy. After playing the first two months of the season without Leonard, Clippers star Paul George then missed 43 games after nursing a torn ligament in his right elbow. Shortly after the Clippers acquired Norman Powell from the Portland Trail Blazers in a trade-deadline deal, Powell played in three games before missing the next 22 contests after fracturing a bone in his left foot.
Still, the Clippers remained in the Play-In picture by relying on a handful of solid veterans (Jackson, Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum) and young players (Zubac, Terance Mann, Luke Kennard). George has since returned for the past four games, averaging 22.5 points, 5.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds in that span. Powell returned for the Clippers’ win over Phoenix on Thursday and added 24 points and four rebounds.
“That was very good for our team,” Zubac said about adjusting to Leonard’s absence. “Guys got better and got more experienced than we usually would have to. Some guys played roles that they usually wouldn’t.”
The Clippers would much rather have Leonard back, obviously. Yet, the Clippers have credited Leonard for his presence behind the scenes both all season and amid his recently increased workload.
“His leadership has been great. Just being around, and being vocal,” Lue said. “But I think those guys just see how hard he’s working, just to try to get back and get back to being Kawhi.”
It remains to be seen when Leonard will progress toward scrimmaging or participating in at least any 3-on-3 drills. But he did spend the past week completing individual court work, which included shooting drills. Leonard was not present when the Clippers allowed the media to observe the end of practice on Friday. Yet Leonard was seen earlier this week taking various jumpers, which the Clippers forbade reporters from documenting with any video.
Leonard’s teammates, however, offered some details on what he does behind the scenes during his shooting routine and weight-lifting sessions.
“He’s been vigorously going through his workouts,” Jackson said. “You don’t see anybody work like him. It’s special to see. Regardless of when he’s fully healthy and when he’s been coming through with his rehab, the dude’s a machine. It’s maniacal. So, it’s been fun to just see him and get his energy back in the building.”
For most of the 2021-22 season, Leonard kept a respectful distance from the team during games both because of his rehab regimen and to avoid attention on the bench. But after progressing with his rehab in the past week, Leonard sat on the team bench during the Clippers’ win over the Suns on Thursday.
Occasionally, Leonard shared observations with teammates in an unassuming way and high-fived players that exited the floor. Otherwise, Leonard mostly just paid attention to the game.
“He’s a man of few words for y’all. But he’s just getting his vibes back, and joking,” Jackson said. “Any time he’s around the team, he really is a fun guy. So, even though we don’t necessarily have him on the court right now, just having his energy back in the building? It relaxes me even more.”
The Clippers will feel more relaxed if Leonard returns during the playoffs. Given that it takes a year for most athletes to recover from an ACL injury, however, LA has operated all season as if it will play without him. The Clippers hope that approach makes Leonard feel less pressure to return and conveys trust in their star player.
Still, LA cannot help but feel more invigorated with Leonard’s increased workload as the Play-In Tournament approaches.
“The way he works is really impressive,” Zubac said. “He shows up early every day. He’s got the same routine every day. No matter if there’s a good or bad game, he’s going to do the same thing. That’s probably what got him to this level.”
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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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