Opinion: As Clippers even series, health of Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell become concern

LOS ANGELES – The play prompted cheers and startled reactions almost as quickly as took for L.A. Clippers star Kawhi Leonard to throw down a dunk

Leonard took two dribbles before extending his long right arm over Utah Jazz forward Derrick Favors. Clippers fans stood up and yelled. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid stood up and did the same thing in the middle of a postgame interview. And Clippers center Ivica Zubac showed Leonard replays of both his dunk and Embiid’s reaction following the Clippers’ 118-104 win over the Utah Jazz on Monday at Staples Center.

“During the game or the heat of the moment, I know it’s a big play,” Leonard said. “But you have to have the next-play mentality.”

Leonard indirectly made a point beyond the fact that Jazz forward Joe Ingles made a wide-open 3-pointer after Leonard delivered the best dunk of the postseason. Though Leonard’s dunk will fill air time endlessly, it hardly captured the potential big-picture implications of the Clippers’ Game 4 win. Instead it points to something more nuanced and less explainable than Leonard’s amazing dunk.

Kawhi Leonard limped after being fouled by Joe Ingles with 5:25 left in the game. He sat out the final 4:38. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images)

How healthy are the Clippers and Jazz entering Game 5 on Wednesday in Utah? Before finishing with 31 points on 9-of-19 shooting, Leonard showed discomfort with his right knee and sat out for the final 4:58 shortly after Jazz forward Joe Ingles fouled him. As he became both productive (37 points) and inefficient (9-of-26 from the field), Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell appeared uncomfortable throughout the game with his previously injured right ankle. And Jazz guard Mike Conley has yet to play in this playoff series because of right hamstring soreness.

It seems impossible to predict whether the Clippers can beat the Jazz after overcoming a 0-2 deficit for the second consecutive playoff series. It seems just as hard to gauge whether the Jazz, with their superior roster, will avoid the same fate the Dallas Mavericks. Predictably, neither team offered much candor on any of these health developments.

After Ingles fouled him, Leonard walked off the court and clutched his right knee. He returned to the court before missing both free throws. But then the Clippers called timeout with 4:58 left and took him out of the game. Leonard did not return even after the Jazz's timeout with 3:11 remaining after standing up on his own and talking to the Clippers' coaching staff. Though Leonard did not receive any treatment, he grimaced a few times while stretching out his right leg.

Perhaps the Clippers just exercised caution with their star player while nursing a double-digit lead. Then again, Leonard has missed substantial time last season (25 games) and this season (20) because of numerous ailments.

😱 KAWHI LEONARD OH MY! 😱#NBAPlayoffs on TNT pic.twitter.com/eTfR1uW1ka

“I’m good,” Leonard said. “Next question.”

Mitchell also did not answer the question about his health.

The Jazz sat Mitchell during their Game 1 loss to Memphis in the first round after originally clearing him to play following morning shootaround. After leading the Jazz to four consecutive wins to close out the Grizzlies, Mitchell insisted his right ankle “feels good.” He expressed similar optimism about his health after fighting through an illness during a 45-point effort in a Game 1 win over the Clippers. He insisted his ankle felt fine after kicking a chair during the Clippers’ near comeback in Game 2 and sitting in the final minutes in Game 3. After Game 4? Mitchell spoke only about the difficulty manning the backcourt without Conley while ignoring a question about how he has held up physically.

“It’s tough, but that’s the job at hand,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done a great job as a group. We’ve thrown different looks and do different things. But it’s tough. It is what it is.”

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Mitchell has fought through his ailments relatively well. After finishing with only four points on 2-of-6 shooting in the first quarter, Mitchell responded with better outings in the second quarter (17 points on 4-of-8 shooting) and in the third quarter (nine points on 2-of-4 shooting). In the fourth quarter, however, Mitchell had seven points by relying on trips to the free-throw line (3-of-5) to make up for his inefficient shooting (1-of-8).

Before the game, Jazz coach Quin Snyder quipped he has given Mitchell all the additional playmaking responsibilities because it would be inappropriate for Utah center Rudy Gobert “to bring it up right now.” Snyder maintained Mitchell could handle that workload both because of his versatility as a scorer and playmaker as well as the Jazz’s depth that enables proper spacing, outside shooting and defense. Still, Snyder conceded “we’re asking him to do a lot right now.” Conley’s ongoing absence has clearly put more strain on the Jazz with every game that he has missed.

“He's making progress. As far as the exact position of where he is in that process, that is a day-to-day thing,” Snyder said of Conley. “I don't comment on the status of an individual player and any individual injury. I think that all I can say is we all know he wants to be back there quickly, and that's the place we're working toward. Obviously, all the guys on the team want him back. We know how he impacts our team. When you're playing without your point guard, it impacts everybody.”

Which of these injuries will have the most impact moving forward? Surely, part of it will involve how Leonard, Mitchell and Conley heal before Game 5. Part of it also points to how well both teams can absorb any limitations.

The Clippers went 11-9 in games without Leonard. The Jazz fared better even in games without Mitchell (13-6 in regular season, 0-1 in playoffs) or Conley (15-6 in regular season, 2-2 on playoffs).

Therefore, expect more twists and turns in Game 5 in Utah and a potentially decisive Game 6 in LA on Friday than we have even seen in the first four games. Leonard’s dunk may have captured what makes playoff basketball so fun to watch. But these varying injuries to Leonard, Mitchell and Conley capture what makes playoff basketball so fluid and fragile.

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