Clippers avoid worst fears: Paul George expected to miss 2-3 weeks with knee sprain
The Clippers hoped this season would end with the unprecedented.
Those dreams of winning the franchise’s first NBA title are now flickering, but not extinguished, as the team faces a challenge that is all too familiar — a star player sidelined at a critical juncture.
All-Star forward Paul George sprained his right knee in Tuesday’s 101-100 loss to Oklahoma City at Crypto.com Arena, and will be reevaluated in two to three weeks, the team announced. George underwent imaging on the knee early Wedneday, the Clippers said.
It was positive long-term news combined with a harsh short-term reality. George and the Clippers appear to have avoided the worst-case outcome of a lengthy recovery, given the scary scene from the initial injury.
Still, the timing means the Clippers likely will navigate the rest of the regular season — nine games remain on the schedule — without their All-Star, who had averaged 28 points over his last six games.
“We still got a good coach, good team, so of course PG is a huge key for us,” forward Nicolas Batum said late Tuesday. “If we have to go through some time without him, we just have to go out there and win some games.”
George’s right knee hit Oklahoma City’s Lu Dort as the two battled for a rebound with 4 minutes 38 seconds remaining in Tuesday’s fourth quarter then buckled and bent backward. George stayed down on the court for several minutes.
As damaging as the eventual loss was — it left the Clippers’ record at 38-35 for fifth place in the Western Conference and gave Oklahoma City, which is only 1½ games behind, the season-series tiebreaker — the possibility of losing George had cast a pall over the team afterward. The locker room was nearly deserted and the arena hallways nearly silent.
George left the arena on the back of a cart, his right leg straightened as he rode, accompanied by a member of the Clippers medical staff. He exited minutes after coach Tyronn Lue had walked slowly toward the same exit, his head down, while speaking with one of the team’s executives.
“We got a group of guys that still want to win, that like to play basketball, so we’ll see what happens,” Clippers co-star Kawhi Leonard said Tuesday.
The team had been careful to manage George’s workload at times earlier in the season because of previous, unspecified issues with his right knee, but as recently as March 8 he had declared himself much improved.
“I feel like I can do anything and everything I want to do,” George had said.
George backed the sentiment Tuesday against the Thunder by cutting toward the paint, collecting a pass and spinning 360 degrees for a highlight dunk. But less than a quarter later George lay crumpled on the court, the situation having changed drastically.
Facing uncertainty Tuesday night while waiting for George to undergo testing, Batum and Leonard pointed to the depth of the roster in case George would need to miss time.
Backup guard Norm Powell, who has not played since injuring his left shoulder March 2, is “is coming back pretty soon,” Batum said.
Backup forward Robert Covington, used rarely this season behind forwards Batum and Marcus Morris Sr. on the depth chart, could fill some of the three-point and defense void. Backup guard Eric Gordon could slide into the starting lineup, as he has done previously in place of a missing starter.
But with nine games remaining in the regular season on a team with little lineup continuity, the Clippers will be forced to undergo another adjustment phase.
“We have to overcome it, you have to, especially for him,” Batum said. “We got to stay focused on who we have on the court. You know, we got good guys, great players anyway, so we’ve been there before. One team who has been there before it’s us.”
Batum spoke from experience, having seen each of the last three seasons derailed by injuries.
In 2021, Leonard suffered a season-ending partial tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in a knee during a second-round playoff series against Utah. The Clippers won the series to advance to the franchise’s first Western Conference Final, but lost to Phoenix after additional injuries to center Ivica Zubac and forward Marcus Morris Sr. deepened the roster attrition.
Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season because of his recovery as the Clippers entered a self-described “gap year,” circling 2022-23 as the season when their title pursuit would resume in earnest.
George started last season hot as the team’s No. 1 option only to miss more than three months because of a strained elbow ligament. George returned in late March and played six games, but entered the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols the day of the team’s second and final play-in tournament game, which became a season-ending loss.
Now, just as the Clippers had believed they were beginning to jell with midseason additions Russell Westbrook, Mason Plumlee and Gordon, a star and the team have suffered another setback — yet one that hasn’t removed George entirely from postseason plans.
George earned his eighth All-Star selection this season, averaging 23.9 points, with 6.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists and making 37% of his three-pointers. Since the mid-February All-Star break he had averaged 25.8 points, and 28.3 over his last six games as the Clippers, buoyed by the improved health of both George and Leonard, went 5-1 to re-establish momentum as a potential title contender.