LOS ANGELES - Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers are tackling the NBA's regular season at their own pace, occasionally sacrificing short-term form for the long-term goal of a championship.
The Clippers have accepted the shifting lineups and uneven efforts that come with regularly resting their vulnerable standouts, Leonard and Paul George, and prioritizing health over regular season dominance.
Los Angeles practically sleepwalked through a 109-100 win over Western Conference-worst Golden State Warriors on Friday without George, but that bland effort does not change the big picture.
"Obviously we have to play better in the long run. I think we all know that," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "If we play like that in May or April it would hurt us. We're a work in progress, we just have to keep getting better."
Nevertheless, the Clippers remain in the thick of things – third in the Western Conference at 27-12.
Leonard proved to the basketball world last season that pacing himself through the marathon league season can reap the greatest reward. He played in just 60 regular season games for the Toronto Raptors while sticking to a plan of maintenance on physical ailments.
In the end, when it mattered, he raised his game and ultimately the Larry O’Brien Trophy as the NBA champions.
The Clippers are following a similar blueprint while resting Leonard on the second night of back-to-back games.
It is hard to argue with the results for Kawhi, who is averaging 30.5 points and 10 rebounds this season in games in which he is returning from taking at least one game off.
Against the Warriors, he was even friskier, ferociously dunking over Golden State’s Eric Paschall and Alen Smailagic in the first half before coming up with key steals to seal the game late.
"I'm feeling better," Leonard said. "I'm able to jump without it grabbing me too much. Hopefully, I just keep going uphill from here."
George has yet to completely find his rhythm and has played in only 26 games after coming into the season following surgeries to both shoulders.
No one is worried about his or the team’s long-term prospects, though.
"They're loaded with talent and built for the playoffs," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "I think they're much further along than they probably want to admit, or anybody has really seen.
"They're playing for the playoffs. And sometimes you just bide your time a little bit and lay in the weeds a little bit, but we know who they are, and they are going to be one of the teams to beat."
(Reporting by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; Editing by Hugh Lawson)
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