Tyronn Lue unplugged Kawhi Leonard before he could overheat in a playoff atmosphere

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This year, the NBA claimed their findings are that load management mumbo jumbo is not supported by scientific data. Yet, the Clippers are still so concerned about Kawhi Leonard’s circuitry that they will unplug him before they risk him overheating and hurting himself when necessary. On Sunday night, Tyronn Lue thought Leonard needed system maintenance. That’s the only way to explain his reasoning for benching Leonard at the 2:47 mark, trailing by three against a rival Lakers squad they’ve been chasing for five decades due to load-management protocol. On Sunday night, LeBron James rolled back the clock, flushed a ferocious dunk and unlocked a level the Lakers needed after a slump. The Clippers move more tentatively than that. Lue reinserted a well-rested Leonard with 17 seconds remaining, with the Clippers needing to foul, allowing the Lakers to escape with a 106-103 win.

A single-elimination NBA playoff would change history

To say the Leonard incident was bizarre is an understatement. Lue blamed himself for inserting Leonard ahead of time when the team was down eight and declared the 35-minute limit on Leonard on it being the first night of a back-to-back. Leonard played 34 minutes and 42 seconds. The warranty on Leonard stating that he can only be operated a set amount of hours tracks with the unproven allegations that he’s the most advanced machine on the planet.

There hasn’t been too much to complain about the Clippers since the calendar flipped to December. They are thriving, winning 14 of their past 17 games. James Harden is preemptively dancing on his haters’ graves and after a sluggish start to the season by Leonard’s lofty standards, he’s course-corrected and resembled one of the better two-way players in the league again.

It wasn’t Leonard’s decision to come out of the game. When a player exceeds their scientifically determined output capacity, team physiologists recommend minute thresholds to avoid injury. Leonard sat for four games at the end of 2023 with a left hip contusion, but since then he’s played 34, 40, and 30 minutes. Too often fans misdirect their anger at players for player-rest decisions they have no say in. That is doubly true for Leonard, who earned an unfair reputation after sitting out an entire season in San Antonio while suffering from quadriceps tendinopathy and refused to make himself available for the Spurs while working out on his own and sitting an entire season.

Then, during the 2021 postseason, Leonard tore his ACL and missed the entirety of the 2022-23 season rehabbing. However, load management is supposed to be a thing of the past. At the tail end of last season, Lue played Leonard an entire half against the Lakers and the NBA’s new anti-load management policy was believed to target teams like the Clippers. This season, Leonard has played in 31 of 35 games.

Minutes restrictions always felt like they should be more of a recommendation than an A.I. scheduled action. Some organizations are more strict with load management than others. Tom Thibodeau is the most prominent load-management heretic. The Clippers are on the extreme end of that philosophy.

In L.A., there are two doctrines on schools of thought on minute restrictions. On the other is 39-year-old LeBron James and Darvin Ham’s laissez-faire consideration of minutes restrictions. The Clippers preseason scuttlebutt revolved around the expected 30-minute restriction being placed on the 39-year-old scoring champ. Instead, James quickly nixed that plan during an early season comeback against the Phoenix Suns. That night, James played 35 minutes in a Lakers win. Afterward, James rationalized his philosophy on restrictions.

“I know how much work I’ve put in to be able to play quarters or whatever the case may be. And I understand that we definitely have a system put in place, but tonight called for me to go outside the box,” James said.

Since then, he’s averaged 35 minutes a night. Keep in mind, James is seven years older than Leonard. The Clippers counterargument is that they are playing the long game. The Lakers needed a spark, but have stumbled since their In-Season Tournament championship. However, where has that gotten Lue and Leonard before? If Leonard breaks, the Clippers can just unplug him and plug him back in. Right now, he can play a few extra minutes when he’s needed without the helicopter coaching. Overuse has never been his issue.

The Clippers playing five games in eight days was part of Lue’s reasoning for refusing to budge on Leonard’s restriction. But that’s essentially what playoff basketball is. Can this team of age 32-and-older superstars win a championship that’s typically been reserved for teams led by stars with fresher legs? That’s a question that still needs a resolution.

Every indication is that Leonard and the Clippers will survive this, but it’s also a reminder that the Clippers are the encapsulation of Westworld’s artificial intelligence theorizing that humans are just a brief algorithm and the best we can do is live by our coding. The Clippers move like programmed hosts navigating through the NBA maze on predetermined paths when they should be breaking their coding. If anything, this a subtle reason to give pause to believing in the Clippers’ ability to defy their history, they pop up in moments like this. Ultimately, the one win won’t cost them, but the Clippers playing to their algorithm is a warning not to trust this team.

Follow DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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