LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers don’t have injured Kawhi Leonard on the court. He’s everywhere else, though.
In the halftime locker room, texting, on the phone, watching from above the floor, all the while analyzing and suggesting ways for his team to get past the Phoenix Suns in the Western Conference Finals.
Leonard watched with his family from a Staples Center suite Thursday night, when Paul George had 27 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in a game-high 43 minutes of the Clippers’ 106-92 victory. It cut their series deficit to 2-1.
Leonard met up with his teammates at halftime, when they trailed by two.
“He was just telling me rotations, what to look for, what’s open, what’s available,” George said. “It gave me a good game plan going into the second half for what to look for.”
Clearly, it worked. The Clippers outscored the Suns 60-42 in the second half.
Leonard hasn’t played since Game 4 of the second round against Utah because of a right knee sprain. The All-Star joined the coaches’ huddle in Game 6, when the Clippers closed out the Jazz and advanced to the conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Coach Tyronn Lue said Leonard won’t play in Game 4 on Saturday night. The Suns are 1-point favorites, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“He’s very much a part of this team without being able to play right now,” George said. “It’s just great to have his mind and his presence part of this game, part of this team.”
Leonard’s low-key approach is in direct contrast to the fiery Patrick Beverley (Devin Booker’s nose got broken when they head-butted in Game 2). Beverley went up to each of his teammates at halftime Thursday, telling them what they needed to do. Marcus Morris, Rajon Rondo and little-used DeMarcus Cousins are the other veterans who have their say, too.
“It’s an amazing locker room we have,” guard Reggie Jackson said. “Everybody tried to collectively lead from their position, from their role, and everybody has pure intent. It doesn’t matter who is on who, who is saying what. We know where it comes from, from the heart and at the end of the day we want to win.”
The Suns took it as an encouraging sign when guard Cameron Payne got some shots up during a light workout Friday.
He left Thursday’s game after just four minutes because of a left ankle injury.
“We think he’s getting better,” coach Monty Williams said. “He’s walking around fine. We hope he can get back on the floor tomorrow.”
Payne proved a solid fill-in for Chris Paul during the first two games of the series, highlighted by 29 points and nine assists in Game 2.
Paul returned Thursday after being released from the league’s health and safety protocols. Payne’s availability is crucial in order to spell Paul after the veteran guard played 38 minutes, which Williams said was too much.
Paul got fouled near the Clippers’ bench in the second quarter. He repeatedly shook his right hand and stretched his fingers out.
Williams said Paul’s hand was “a little sore,” however he seemed to be OK.
Ivica Zubac is back in a big way for the Clippers.
After playing sparingly in the last two games against Utah in the West semifinals, the 7-footer has logged over 30 minutes in two of the first three games against Phoenix.
“There’s no egos on this team,” Zubac said Friday. “We’re all in here for a great purpose and that’s to win a championship.”
He had 15 points and a career playoff-high 16 rebounds in Thursday’s win.
“His presence was great on guards, drives,” George said. “He just made it tough to finish around the rim.”
Zubac altered shots and got in the way of Deandre Ayton, who shot 9 of 13 for 18 points. It was a bit of payback after Zubac failed to defend Jae Crowder’s pinpoint alley-oop lob that led to Ayton’s game-winning dunk with 0.9 seconds left in Game 2.
Zubac is enjoying the variety of big men he’s faced so far: Dallas’ Boban Marjanovic, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, and now Ayton.
“He’s more of a rim runner, an offensive threat,” Zubac said. “He can post-up, he can face-up, he can give you a lot of different problems on the offensive end.”
Zubac made 9 of 10 free throws in Game 3. Ten of his 16 rebounds were on the defensive glass, to go with all 15 of George’s rebounds, helping the Clippers to 41-32 edge in that category.