Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers have become a ‘scary’ team faster than anyone expected
The Clippers spent preseason preaching a wait-and-see approach.
Just two games into the season, however, the Clippers have not had to wait long to see that they’ve justified the hype, despite playing without injured All-Star forward Paul George and guard Rodney McGruder.
Tuesday against the Lakers, the Clippers blunted the second-half effectiveness of perhaps the NBA’s best frontcourt player in Anthony Davis while disrupting his timing with LeBron James.
In a 141-122 victory over the Golden State Warriors two days later, they set their sights on limiting one of the league’s most talented backcourts in Stephen Curry and D’Angelo Russell.
“There’s not really much to assess,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “We just got crushed.”
James and Davis are still learning how to play together. Green called Golden State’s defense “atrocious.” The Clippers have their own caveats, and yet they’ve begun the season with a pair of victories going away and will be favored to beat Phoenix on Saturday and Charlotte on Monday.
“We’re scary defensively,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “Very, very, very scary.
“… We just grind people down, grind people down. We come in waves.”
Without Klay Thompson, the Golden State Warriors couldn’t prevent the Clippers from showcasing their talents on offense and defense in a 141-122 victory.
When players organized an August retreat to Miami, and began playing pickup games in Los Angeles four weeks before training camp, they did so with a fast start in mind. Early on, coach Doc Rivers noticed new star forward Kawhi Leonard’s “maniacal” practice habits rubbing off.
“It’s business time,” Rivers said. “That’s the way he looks at it.”
Leonard called it “a little bit surprising” how quickly the roster has jelled, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Trades and injuries have left little lineup stability since 2017, but the Clippers’ core of Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell has become accustomed to adjusting on the fly.
During preseason, that meant figuring out their rotations without George and McGruder while also learning the tendencies of Leonard, who only began participating in full-contact scrimmages one week in.
“The pick-and-roll is so easy because [defenders] care about Kawhi so much, I’m wide open,” center Ivica Zubac said. “On the bench, I told him, ‘They keep fouling me. I can’t get you assists.’ And he was like, ‘As long as you score free throws and we get a win, I don’t care about stats.’ That shows you what kind of player he is.”
Leonard has scored 51 points in 53 minutes through two games and tied his career high with nine assists against the Warriors. His play-making has helped teammates offer reminders of their talent too. Six months after Zubac was benched against the Warriors in the postseason because of his struggles to keep up with a small-ball lineup, he scored 16 points in nearly 18 minutes.
“It was very important for me, forget him,” Rivers said of Zubac. “I wanted him to do well because this is the place he lost his minutes. And now there were times that it was probably time for [Harrell] to come in and we kept Zu in because he was playing so well. So that was good. Really good.”
Coaches and teammates trace a direct line from Landry Shamet’s dependability as a pro to his upbringing in which he learned to depend on the team around him.
Patrick Patterson lost his starting job with Oklahoma City last season in part because of his 33% three-point shooting. He has started both games with the Clippers and made 53% of his three-pointers while attempting 6½ per game. He made six against Golden State, his big night helped by the attention drawn by Leonard, who found open shooters when the Warriors shaded a second defender in his direction.
“Two Finals MVPs with two different teams, your boy can do everything,” Beverley said of Leonard. “They don’t just give those awards to people who can’t play. He’s proven it. Of course he’s been put in a lot of positions where you have to make a lot of buckets. Due to the amount of shooters we have, the big guys that roll, our dynamic of the team is going to make his job a lot easier.”
The 141 points scored by the Clippers on Thursday tied for the second most in a road opener in NBA history.
“Give the Clippers credit,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr sad. “They have a hell of a team.”
When: 7 p.m. PDT
On the air: TV — Prime Ticket, NBA TV; Radio — 570
Update: The Clippers have beaten Phoenix in 12 consecutive games and have won by an average of 15 points during the streak. The Suns will be playing on the second night of back-to-back games that began Friday in Denver. Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft, won’t play as he sits out the second of a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug policy. The 6-foot-11 center tested positive for a banned diuretic, according to the NBA. With Ayton, Phoenix beat Sacramento by 29 points to open its season Wednesday, one point shy of the largest margin of victory in a season opener in franchise history.
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