Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard out for Game 1 vs. Mavericks with knee injury

LA Clippers All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard will not play in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday due to right knee inflammation, Clippers coach Clippers coach Tyronn Lue told reporters before the game. Leonard last played on March 31 on the road against the Charlotte Hornets, missing the last eight games on the schedule.

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Leonard’s next opportunity to play will be Game 2 in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.

Leonard, a two-time Finals MVP, is coming off of one of his best seasons after returning to All-Star status for the first time in three years. This season was the most games Leonard played (68) since 2017, and he had career-highs in minutes per game (34.3), field goal percentage (52.5), and total dunks (76).

Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank said Wednesday that Leonard would be listed as questionable for Game 1 despite not taking any contact in any practice before Sunday. Frank described Leonard’s injury as “very stubborn inflammation” and that Leonard and the team were doing everything possible to get him back on the floor.

“He’s able to do all the mental preparation part of it, the film study, the personnel review,” Frank said of Leonard earlier in the week. “Inflammation is unpredictable, so we’d love to have a crystal ball and Kawhi would love to have a crystal ball and know exactly on this day. But you just control what you can control, and hopefully, the inflammation reduces in a short amount of time and he’s back on the court. That’s the goal.”

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Leonard has had the last three postseasons compromised by right knee injuries and procedures. In 2021, he missed the last six playoff games for the Clippers due to a partially torn ACL suffered in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz after being hit by Utah forward Joe Ingles on a fourth-quarter fast break. Leonard missed the entire 2021-22 season after surgery to repair the ACL, and the Clippers lost two games in the Play-In Tournament, failing to make the playoffs. Last year, Leonard injured his right knee and did not play after Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Phoenix Suns; the team listed him with a right knee sprain but revealed after the Clippers were eliminated that Leonard had a torn meniscus.

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While the concern with Leonard’s knee has led to questions about his previous injuries, Frank has said that Leonard’s surgically repaired knee is “structurally sound” and that the Clippers will not risk Leonard or any other player’s health if there is a risk for future injury. Frank also said that Leonard’s status was not an effort of gamesmanship with the series against the Mavericks starting.

“You get through the steps of where the swelling is, at an acceptable level and then you start the ramp up, you do some exercises in the performance room, you start doing court work and then where you get to a point where you’re able to go full speed contact type work,” Leonard said.

Lue had been noncommittal on Leonard’s status for the postseason for most of the last two weeks. The Clippers did not need to play the full roster in their last three games, having clinched a division title at Phoenix in their last regular-season win. When asked before the April 12 game against the Jazz if Leonard will be playing when the playoffs begin, Lue said, “That is what we want to see … hopefully he will be playing, yes.”

Lue said Tuesday that Leonard would participate in “a quarter of the practice.” By the next day, Lue apologized for getting frustrated with questions about Leonard’s status.

“I know it’s you guys’ job, but like I said, we just take it day by day,” Lue said of Leonard’s status Wednesday. “He’s taking it day by day. He’s getting better. And we’ll see how he continues to progress.”

With Leonard out, most of the responsibility of leading the Clippers comes down to fellow All-Star Paul George, who will be playing in his first playoff game Sunday since the 2021 Western Conference Finals. When George was asked Saturday about the responsibility he will undertake with Leonard out for Game 1, he responded, “Same responsibility I’ve been had when Kawhi’s been down.”

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(Photo: Soobum Im / USA Today)

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