Clippers guard Norman Powell arrived at Golden 1 Center before Friday night’s tipoff against the Sacramento Kings with his left arm still in a sling, a day after injuring his shoulder while reaching out to stop a would-be Golden State rebounder.
After a fifth consecutive loss, this a 128-127 defeat decided in the final seven seconds, his team’s grand postseason aspirations are similarly battered.
In a reversal of last week’s double-overtime frenzy between these teams that required extra time after Sacramento’s 14-point comeback in the final four minutes of the fourth quarter, the Clippers trailed by 13 with 7:41 to play, only to take the lead by one with 34 seconds left after a contested layup by Paul George.
After a defensive stop, the Clippers allowed the Kings a final chance to win after a pass slipped through the hands of Russell Westbrook with 15 seconds left. Westbrook to that point had been the Clippers’ offensive engine. Allowed a last chance to win, the Kings missed a jumper, but Domantas Sabonis drew a loose-ball foul with seven seconds left and made both free throws for a one-point lead.
Without a timeout, the Clippers put the ball in George’s hands, but his three-point try missed as time expired, his protest for a foul unheeded. The Clippers dropped to 33-33 on the season, players stalking towards their locker room as the Kings (37-25) lit a laser above their arena that signals each win.
Westbrook had 27 points and 10 assists. George finished with 28 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
Powell, who had overcome a difficult shooting start to his first full Clippers season to become a candidate for the NBA’s top reserve by averaging 16.6 points on 41% three-point accuracy, suffered a subluxation of the left shoulder on the play toward the end of Thursday’s third quarter in San Francisco. Powell will undergo treatment, and the team expects to have a clearer picture of his recovery timeline in one week. Sixteen games remain in the Clippers’ regular season.
Since 2006, the average amount of time missed for shoulder subluxation injuries that do not require surgery is 21 days, according to In Street Clothes, which tracks NBA injury data. In a recent case, Golden State star Stephen Curry suffered the same injury and missed 11 games during a three-week absence.
Powell has endured shoulder injuries throughout his eight-year career, including a previous subluxation of his left shoulder in November 2018. He missed 21 games, over five weeks, then. One season later, in December 2020, another injury to Powell’s left shoulder cost him 11 games.
Powell’s blend of speed, aggressive drives into the paint and instinctual foul-drawing make him a uniquely difficult talent to replace. Powell shot an average of 8.4 free-throw attempts per 100 possessions, the second-highest rate among the team’s main contributors.
“We’re gonna miss all of it,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
The prospect of a potentially lengthy absence comes at a time when the Clippers were expected to cut down their rotation in an attempt to create long-sought on-court chemistry. Lue didn’t know how removing Powell from the rotation would affect his decision-making on future lineups — whether Lue felt he could continue to give all three guards including Terance Mann, Eric Gordon and Powell off the bench was one lingering question — but said “we’re used to change.”
In the run-up to the postseason, the Clippers could use a nine-man rotation, a number with which Lue is comfortable. As it happened, they had nine players available in total Friday against the Kings. Kawhi Leonard sat out, the star has yet to play on consecutive days this season. Starting center Ivica Zubac (elbow contusion), starting forward Marcus Morris Sr. (calf strain) and four players in the G League also weren’t available.
Needing an offensive spark by any means with Leonard out, especially after George took just four shots in the first half, meant more offensive latitude for Westbrook, and one night after being entirely avoided by Golden State’s defenders produced an unavoidably effective performance. When the Clippers signed Westbrook with the intent of letting “Russ be Russ,” this was the kind of controlled force that was envisioned as a best-case scenario, his swagger returning 24 hours after his shot-making shortcomings were put under the spotlight of a national broadcast. After making seven of his first eight shots in the first half while adding seven assists, he had a testy verbal exchange with Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox.
What happened when Westbrook went to the bench for rest late in the third quarter underscored what made him so effective Friday. In the process, the void emphasized what the Clippers must replace as long as Powell, with his ability of “getting to the basket, because he had the speed to turn the corner,” remains out.
Leading 92-91 with 3:13 to play in the quarter, the Clippers inserted reserves Mann, Bones Hyland and Robert Covington, pressed into duty after seven combined minutes in his last six games. With Westbrook and Gordon off the floor, the Clippers no longer looked for driving lanes into the paint, settling instead for three-pointers even though the Kings lacked rim protection.
By the time Westbrook checked back in with 8:15 left in the fourth quarter, the Clippers trailed by 13 points after missing their first seven three-pointers of the quarter. For the game, they attempted 41 three-pointers, shooting 34%, and 37 shots inside the paint, shooting 75%.
Making a pair of contested layups on consecutive possessions, Westbrook pulled the Clippers to within 122-118 with less than three minutes remaining, then split two free throws with 1:20 left to cut the deficit to two. His decision not to shoot an open three-pointer, instead passing back to George, who swished his corner shot, pushed the Clippers into their first lead of the quarter.
The Clippers dropped to 4-12 when allowing 120 or more points and 13-23 against teams with .500 or better records.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.