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Clippers goal in restart against Lakers Thursday is to rebuild ‘winning habits’

Clippers goal in restart against Lakers Thursday is to rebuild ‘winning habits’

A healthy Clippers squad was 44-20 and threatening to really start wreaking havoc.

Doc Rivers, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Co. had won seven of eight games. They were building chemistry and momentum, and looked primed for a potentially historic postseason push.

But just when things really were getting really good, the power went out.

On March 11, basketball stopped. Almost everything stopped. And the coronavirus took hold.

More than four months later, it hasn’t let go: As of Wednesday, there’s been upward of 4.5 million confirmed cases in the United States, and more than 152,000 deaths.

On Tuesday in Florida, site of the NBA bubble that might have seemed like science fiction a few months ago, health officials reported 9,230 new cases and 191 deaths.

Early on, before the cases and casualties had climbed so staggeringly high, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he was at a loss for when play could resume.

But in the months that followed, as Clippers players stayed in daily contact via a group chat, challenging each other during workouts over Zoom and training on equipment delivered to them by the team, the league hatched a plan to resume play.

With stringent safety protocols in place, the NBA will continue its interrupted season on a closed campus at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. As it stands, the bubble is intact, with NBA and NBPA reporting Wednesday that, for the second consecutive week, none of the 344 players tested was positive for the coronavirus.

So, on Thursday, in the midst of the pandemic as well as protests over social injustice that are ongoing outside the bubble and within it, NBA basketball restarts for real.

The Clippers will tip off Thursday against the Lakers, the fourth episode of this season’s regular-season series selected to headline re-opening night on Thursday (6 p.m., Fox Sports Prime Ticket, TNT). The Clippers are 2-1 against their normal Staples Center co-tenants.

It’ll be the first of eight seeding games for both teams before the playoffs, which will be begin Aug. 17 in line with the traditional format.

The Clippers will try to make good on their hiatus motto, “Win the Wait,” although it will be tough to pick up exactly where they left off. The team that was at last were coalescing back in March hasn’t had an opportunity tune up together in the bubble. Personal issues and positive coronavirus tests have meant that eight of the 15 Clippers on the restart roster either were delayed arriving or had to leave.

Center Montrezl Harrell and guard Lou Williams aren’t expected to be available Thursday; it appeared that Harrell was away still early on Wednesday and Williams will remain stuck in a 10-day league-mandated quarantine following a much-publicized stop for chicken wings while he was outside of the bubble for a funeral.

Patrick Beverley is a firm “maybe,” Rivers said Wednesday morning, after the fiery guard left to tend to a personal matter and returned to quarantine Sunday.

The rest of the Clippers roster should be intact, though not up to speed. Center Ivica Zubac and shooting guard Landry Shamet only recently flew in and will need time to recover their wind and rhythm.

With all the coming an going, Rivers said he’s looking ahead to the seeding games not with the goal of fine-tuning and finessing — but with the intention of getting his team on its collective feet and fit.

And then maybe then the Clippers can turn their attention to world domination.

“Getting to a peak conditioning level,” Rivers said, via Zoom, as all his interviews and news conferences now are held. “It’s very important. Like you’ve got to get through these eight games. By the end of the eight games, you’re going to the playoffs. When you’re going to the playoffs, you’re usually at your peak place, especially conditioning and rhythm and timing. That would be my goal.

“Obviously you want to win games, but if you told me we didn’t, but when we started the playoffs we were at the peak in each of those places, I would tell you I’d take that right now.”

Likewise, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard expressed less concern with seeding victories than with reestablishing the continuity that had been so hard to come by for the Clippers before the hiatus: L.A. played only 11 games all season with a full lineup — and the Clippers were plenty formidable on those rare occasions, winning 10 times and losing only to a motivated, Western Conference-leading Lakers team on March 8.

“Everybody plays a different game,” said Leonard, who was averaging career highs in points (26.9), assists (5), and rebounds (7.3) in his first season with the Clippers.

“Just able to get out of their way or able to give it to the guys that are missing, to give them the ball in their spots so they can score, or just even on defense, being in the gap, knowing who’s going to help you or how much extra effort that person is giving at that time,” Leonard continued. “It’s just little things like that that you’re missing on the floor.”

Because the Clippers haven’t had the luxury of using the three few weeks of warm-up and trio of scrimmages to truly reconnect on the court, they’ll have to do it when it counts. They know that, Leonard said.

“We’ve got eight games to get ready for the playoffs,” the two-time NBA Finals MVP said. “We’ve got to use these games to build some habits and just build team chemistry really … just winning habits, pretty much.

“It’s either missing a defensive assignment, running through some players, just making sure we’re executing our plays down the stretch. Just knowing who you’re playing with, knowing your teammates’ habits, knowing what they do well, trying to help them do it well, and that’s pretty much it.

“Just trying to build the team chemistry to win.”


Press Enterprise