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PHOENIX — Hours before the LA Clippers tried to keep their season alive without their two franchise stars in Game 5, Paul George said it’s been “super frustrating” to see another Clippers season marred by injuries.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since spraining his right knee on March 21, George said that he and Kawhi Leonard are both frustrated that the Clippers might not fulfill their championship-contending potential yet again due to injuries. The Clippers will try to avoid elimination against the Phoenix Suns in Game 5 on Tuesday night, trailing 3-1 in their best-of-7 series.

“It’s super frustrating,” George said at Clippers’ shootaround. “To put so much into the season, put so much into this group and the organization, to put so much into making a team that could compete and again, year after year just getting zapped by injuries, it’s frustrating.

“That wasn’t reason I came here, I know it wasn’t the reason [Kawhi] came here. We obviously had big plans to win and do something special for Clipper Nation but I’m a big believer of everything happens for a reason and you just pick up the pieces and try to make a hand out of what you dealt with … I’m very optimistic that our time will come.”

This is Year 4 of the Leonard-George era with the Clippers, and the superstar duo did not envision a first-round exit with both watching from the sideline.

Leonard has not played since Game 2 due to a right knee sprain that he suffered in Game 1. Leonard played through it in Game 2, but the injury worsened and will keep him out for a third straight game. The injury has been a tough pill to swallow for Leonard, who missed all of the 2021-22 season with a torn right ACL and ramped his way back up all season to be healthy in the playoffs. He averaged 34.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists in the first two games of the series.

“It’s been real hard,” George said of how Leonard is feeling. “And I think what people don’t understand is Kawhi is a trouper, man. Kawhi is willing to put it on the line. The fact that he got hurt Game 1, tried to play through it Game 2 and people think that he’s out because he doesn’t want to play. I think it just attacks his character, where people don’t understand.

“He’ll play through it [if he can]. It’s got to be a reason why he’s out. And he wants to be out there with us and he wants to be out there to lead … I know it hurts him not be able to be on that floor and continue to lead how he was.”

With Leonard and George out, Russell Westbrook has stepped up and exceeded all expectations the Clippers had when they added the point guard at the All-Star break following his contract buyout with Utah. George lobbied heavily for the Clippers to add this former Oklahoma City teammate and the All-Star said the team needs Westbrook back next season.

Westbrook entered Game 5 averaging 26 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.3 assists while shooting 40.9% from 3-point range in the first four games of the series, potentially increasing his value in the free agent market this summer.

“He’s played himself back into the Russ that he was,” George said of the former MVP point guard. “That we all knew that he still has. Definitely gonna be some decisions [in the offseason for Westbrook to consider]. I definitely vouched for him to be here. I’m definitely vouching for him to come back.

“He brings so much to his team and I mean it’s amazing to watch him. He’s older than me and he’s putting his body on the line. He’s giving literally everything he’s got to our franchise during this playoff run. I just think he’s the leader that we need at the point guard position going forward and would love to have him back.”

George has been progressing in workouts on the court but says his injury requires six weeks minimum before returning. Tuesday marked five weeks since he suffered the injury against Oklahoma City on March 21.

“I haven’t quite hit the six-week mark yet,” George said. “So it’ll definitely be a decision and one that I’ll have to look at and say, I either give it a try or see if we get past that and be full strength in the second round.”

“It’s always a risk,” George said when asked if he could make his injury worse by returning too fast. “Six-week mark was the earliest, that was just being super aggressive for the injury that I had. So there’s a huge concern or a huge risk coming back too soon … there are some limitations. I know there’s been some soreness from playing and rebuilding that muscle memory stuff again. So it’s honestly just been taking it one day at a time and see where I go from there.”

George has no doubt, however, that he and Leonard still have time to fulfill their goal of winning a championship with the Clippers and that next season won’t be championship or bust.

“I think I got a lot of good years in me,” said George, 32. “I know Kawhi thinks he’s got a lot of good years in him. I’m not going to put any pressure on that anytime soon.

“… It’s very frustrating [being injured] and it sucks. It really does suck. So we are not looking at going into next year yet. I believe the guys still got enough to win this series and go past further than this series and I’ll be able to join them at some point.”

Even though George and Leonard played only 38 games together this season — the Clippers were 24-14 with their two stars on the court together — the All-Star said that they know the potential of what they can do when healthy.

“We just had a short window [together this season],” George said. “We’ve seen when we’re at our best with everybody healthy and what we’re capable of. Small window of not being able to put it all together at the same time for a long period. But I think it’s enough to go forward and be very optimistic of what we can be in years to come.”

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Paul George – ‘Frustrating’ to see Clippers derailed by injuries