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Swanson: Clippers’ growing pains are frustrating but necessary

I’m not a fan of all this newfangled A.I. gimmickry going on, this trend of asking the machines to create our images, graphics and poems for us. Maybe it’s just me, but I wasn’t rooting for Skynet in the “Terminator” movies.

And so I’m grateful to the Clippers for so clearly illustrating the difference between artificially intelligent artistry and the bonafide human experience.

You can’t just type what you want to see – “NBA championship team starring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George” – into a search field and get the real thing.

No, the team’s very human struggles this season remind us that chemistry requires experimentation. That was evident this past week, when the Clippers’ best players finally returned only for their team to have a narrow escape against the 7-18 Charlotte Hornets and then let winnable games slip away against the 6-20 Orlando Magic and the 12-14 Miami Heat.

Also: Continuity, by definition, is the consistent existence of something over a period of time. Such as, say, a basketball team’s rotation.

And even the Clippers’ resident Terminator is but a man, fallible, fragile.

The Clippers played most of last season without their stars, and yet their fans found joy in watching a plucky, overachieving group that would have made the playoffs if the NBA wasn’t doing the regular season-devaluing play-in tournament these days.

Most of those same Clippers have also played most of this season without their stars so far, but no one is enjoying a weary, underachieving group perform as though they’re in a holding pattern, operating with regular season-devaluing caution as they try to keep their heads above water.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all, and the framing of a picture adds a lot to how it’s perceived.

People looked at this season as the one when the Clippers really could get it done, could claim that first championship. This team was built for it, long and switchable and well-coached and familiar with one another – better suited for a potential championship run than the 2020 team that crumbled in the bubble. If this group could stay healthy, watch out.

Yeah, about that.

After playing no basketball the previous year and a half, Leonard has participated in seven of the Clippers’ 27 games so far, about 170 minutes total. And that’s come in spurts: He played two of the Clippers’ first three games and then missed the next 13; he played three in a row and then missed another six straight; and now he’s back, back again – though not for both games of back-to-back sets.

As always, his absences are murky and mysterious, so it was unclear how worried fans should be during that first extended absence for “right knee injury management.”

Was it a matter of the Clippers wanting to bubble-wrap their stars, or something else?

There are scenarios when ACL repairs don’t take and require re-reconstruction, said Dr. Alan Beyer, executive medical director at Hoag Orthopedic Institute, during that first hiatus of Leonard’s. Other times, it’s just a matter of dealing with pain or swelling or a feeling of instability, so the best move is to hit pause and let the knee settle down before proceeding.

Fortunately for the Clippers – and for the NBA, which is, as Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant said, better when Leonard is playing – it seems he has moved past whatever sidelined him at the start of the season.

Except, then there was a right ankle sprain that cost him close to a couple of weeks, a span in which the Clippers lost four of six games, fell to 13-11 and saw their frustrated fandom fretting and fighting amongst themselves on the internet.

Because everyone – Clippers coach Tyronn Lue included – was fired up when Leonard and George rejoined their team on the court at practice last week: “Yeah, I’m excited,” Lue said. “I am very excited to see what we have.”

But that big reveal was delayed one more game, with no explanation besides “today wasn’t the right day.” It was the Sacramento Kings’ day, though, and they handed the Clippers a 126-93 defeat on Dec. 3, their worst of the season.

Reinforcements finally arrived to start this week’s road trip, which continues Saturday in Washington D.C., but it still hasn’t been pretty.

Lue knew, though, it would be this way.

He knew he’d have to navigate Leonard’s hard minutes limit and go without him when the Clippers had games on consecutive nights. And Lue knew reincorporating him and George in Leonard’s limited windows would require trial and error, and then more trial and error.

“And so it’s going to take a little time,” Lue said, “just figuring out the rotations and who plays well with who and trying to figure out how to split Kawhi’s minutes and what’s best for the team and what’s best for him as well. And we understand that.”

As uninspiring as this part of the process is, as much slippage as the Clippers are experiencing – big leads, winnable games, their defense – they are at least finally getting to work at it.

Whether they’ll have enough time (and whether they can stay healthy enough to keep at it), well, we’ll see, won’t we?

But Leonard played a season-high 30 minutes and 12 seconds in their overtime loss to Orlando. He had four turnovers and shot 4 for 15 from the field but, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movies, he is back.

But he’s not a cyborg, so it’s not automatic. It’s not artificial. It’s authentic.

He’s human, and that’s the best part. Because as stoic as the man is, as confounding as his absences can be, the game means something to him.

“I love this game of basketball,” he said after knocking down the game-winner in his return on Monday in Charlotte. “I don’t think nobody loves playing any more than me. … I love this game and it gives me joy when I’m able to play.”



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