The Los Angeles Clippers’ season began in an empty arena with cardboard cutouts, COVID-19 tests, and protocols for everything. It ended with the team reaching the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history, even without injured superstar Kawhi Leonard.
A masked Leonard watched from the bench as the Clippers lost to the Phoenix Suns in six games on Wednesday night.
“Man, we just had a group of guys that loved playing with each other. Everyone was on the same page,” center Ivica Zubac said Thursday.
The Clippers overcame 0-2 deficits in the first two rounds to beat Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks and Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. Leonard sprained his right knee in Game 4 against the Jazz and didn't play again.
Zubac also injured his knee and was forced to sit out the final two games against the Suns. The Clippers trailed that series 0-2 and 1-3 before closing to 3-2 and eventually running out of gas.
Through the injuries, Paul George kept the team rolling, producing a playoff career-high 41 points while facing elimination on the road in Game 5 against the Suns. He averaged nearly 41 minutes a game, and scored at least 20 points in all 19 playoff games, one of only four NBA players ever to do so.
“We squeezed everything out of one another,” George said, “and I thought we got stronger and better as the season went on.”
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The Clippers have the pieces in place to make an extended postseason run again next year. Their first order of business involves Leonard.
He has a player option worth $36 million for next season. If he declines the option, he’ll become an unrestricted free agent and could sign a contract that would pay him more annually. Leonard convinced George to come to the Clippers in 2019 so they could play together and be close to their Southern California hometowns.
“We’ve both grown, myself and Kawhi together. We really enjoy being teammates, and we see what we can be,” George said. "One of the commitments I made signing my contract was to show I’m here for the long run and I’m committed to this team. Hopefully that weighs on anybody’s decision.”
Serge Ibaka, whose season ended early due to back surgery, also has a player option worth $9.7 million.
Reggie Jackson, Nicolas Batum, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson will each be unrestricted free agents. Amir Coffey is the team's only restricted free agent.
Jackson shone during the playoffs. He averaged 17.8 points while starting 17 of 19 postseason games, and shot 41% from 3-point range, which should set him up for a bigger payday. The Clippers must decide whether they're willing to pay more to retain the guard.
“I can't predict the future, I have no idea what happens,” Jackson said, “but this city, this organization, this fan base is special. I’ll forever be a Clipper. I’m thankful for this opportunity.”
Jackson and George are longtime friends, and George said, "I’m definitely going to try my hardest to recruit.”
Cousins turned back the clock, scoring 27 points in 25 combined minutes replacing Zubac in the last two games. After being released by Houston in February, the former All-Star signed a pair of 10-day contracts with the Clippers and played 16 regular-season games. Five of his seven playoff games were against the Suns.
Marcus Morris led the Clippers with 26 points while playing 42 minutes — one more than George — despite a sore knee in the last game.
“We know what we're capable of doing,” Morris said. “I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
The Clippers didn't go away without drama.
Patrick Beverley got ejected after shoving former Clipper Chris Paul in the back and knocking him down in the fourth quarter.
“Emotions got the best of me last night gang,” Beverley tweeted Thursday in a message to Paul. “My bad wasn't meant for you. Congrats on making it to the Finals. Best of Luck.”