LOS ANGELES (AP) — From their first appearance in the Western Conference Finals to a last-minute play-in game, the Los Angeles Clippers have been a surprisingly resilient group.
They finished two games over .500 despite missing superstar Kawhi Leonard all season and losing Paul George for the most part. They traded for Norman Powell in February, only to lose him to injury days later.
George and Powell recently returned within days of each other and led the Clippers on a five-game winning streak to end the regular season.
They are not ready to go home for the summer.
The Clippers are four-point favorites against the New Orleans Pelicans in their play-in elimination game on Friday night, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
“Honestly, it’s not even about the showdown,” George said. “There are no pep talks, there are no X’s and O’s. We have to win”.
The Pelicans advanced with a 113-103 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. The Clippers lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves 109-104, costing them the No. 7 seed and a first-round matchup against Memphis.
“I definitely hope that we keep our spirits high, that we understand that we still have another Friday, that we control our own destiny,” Clippers guard Reggie Jackson said.
The winner gets the No. 8 seed and a first-round meeting with the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns. The Clippers lost to the Suns in six games in last year’s conference finals.
MISSING IN ACTION
Both teams will be without their superstars.
Leonard continues to recover from surgery on a partially torn right ACL that occurred in the second round against Utah last year. The team has honored Leonard’s penchant for privacy and provided little information on his status.
However, he has maintained a presence on the team and will be available on Friday.
“Even when PG was out, having those guys means a lot to this team, especially a young team,” coach Tyronn Lue said Thursday.
Zion Williamson is making progress in his recovery from a foot injury that kept him out all season for the Pelicans and has been participating in controlled games. However, the first overall pick in the 2019 draft is not expected to play against the Clippers, though he did steal the show with a pair of windmill dunks during warmups Wednesday.
THREE FRONT ATTACK
Even without Williamson, the Pelicans still have a potent Big Three, so to speak, as the Spurs discovered.
CJ McCollum, acquired in a midseason trade, center Jonas Valanciunas, acquired in a preseason trade, and starting flank Brandon Ingram combined for 81 points against San Antonio. Valanciunas also had 14 rebounds.
“We have to ride those guys,” coach Willie Green said. “When you get to this point in the season, you have to increase his minutes a little bit, but more. We’re going to run more plays that get through them and allow them to create for others, and they did a great job” against San Antonio.
George’s return to the lineup has positively impacted his teammates.
Ivica Zubac produced double-doubles in his last four regular season games, averaging 12.3 points and 9.4 rebounds. The 7-footer has also been a big factor on the defensive end.
Luke Kennard did not make the trip to Minnesota because of a sore right hamstring, which was treated Thursday. He leads the league in 3-point percentage at 44.9 and has averaged 15.8 points in his last six games.
George has been showing off his playmaking skills, averaging a career-high 5.7 assists. Double teaming George hasn’t been an answer for opponents, as he can kick Kennard and 7-footer Isaiah Hartenstein, who is showing deft touch from long range.
Green guided the Pelicans to a 36-46 record after starting 1-12 in his first season as coach. Now, he’s up against his old team for a playoff spot.
Green was a shooting guard for the Clippers from 2012-14, averaging 5.7 points while playing 16 minutes per game on a team that included the Lob City trio of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan.
Green ended his 12-year playing career after the following season in Orlando.
He has two NBA championships as an assistant for Golden State. He was an assistant to Phoenix before accepting the Pelicans job.
The Pelicans’ rookie trio of Herb Jones, Trey Murphy and Joe Alvarado passed their first postseason test, setting the stage for them to play big roles against the Clippers as well.
Jones, a second-round pick out of Alabama, guarded Spurs All-Star Dejounte Murray and held him to 16 points on 5-for-19 shooting with five assists. He could end up with George next.
“We have no doubts in Herb,” Valanciunas said. “He is a great defensive player. He is always protecting offensive threats from opposing teams.”
Jones also had 12 points, as did Alvarado, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia Tech. Murphy, a first-round pick out of Virginia, had a relatively quiet night but still played 22 minutes and has been a explosive scorer in recent weeks.
AP sportswriter Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
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