If you’re going to participate in load management — and the Clippers clearly are — then you’re going to need to participate in some standings management too.
After leaving Kawhi Leonard in Southern California to rest during their loss at Utah on Wednesday, the Clippers had some ground to make up the next night. And as the team’s freshest player, he made sure the Clippers would be OK.
With load-managed legs, Leonard lifted the Clippers to a 103-97 victory, handing the Spurs their first loss of the season while sparing the Clippers from their first losing streak of theirs.
Leonard scored 38 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and ripped away four steals against the team that he began his professional career with. And on a night when the rest of the Clippers’ might have had heavy legs, Leonard’s spryness on both ends made the difference.
“I love it when your better players are aggressive,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Maybe it was the scheduled time off or maybe it was seeing his former team. Either way, Leonard was hyper-aggressive Thursday, taking 32 shots — the most he’s ever taken in a regular-season game.
It’s a sign of his offensive comfort, the way Leonard holds the ball calmly in his comically large hands before finding the exact angle to attack.
Sometimes, he’ll use a behind-the-back dribble to go around the defense. Other times, it’s brute force before rising and hitting an unguardable turnaround jumper in the lane.
And on the defensive end, maybe more than in any other game this season, Leonard attacked too. He poked the ball loose and swept in for uncontested dunks on multiple occasions, big points in a game that never felt comfortable.
And seeing it happen against the team that helped mold him made it impossible to ignore his journey.
“Seeing where he’s at now to where he started from, it’s absolutely amazing,” Rivers said.
The Leonard the Gregg Popovich Spurs tried to defend Thursday has only a haircut in common with the player he and the franchise traded for on draft night in 2011.
The first order of business, Popovich remembered, was convincing Leonard to be a dominant defensive player while he patiently worked on his offensive game.
By the end of the rookie season, he was a full-time starter and defensive ace. By the end of season three, he had won his first Finals most valuable player award. And by Season 4, he was scoring 20 points a game.
“How many years did we have him?” Popovich said of Leonard’s seven seasons with the Spurs. “We saw everything. He grew from Day 1 the entire time he was there. He grew into the Kawhi Leonard you see today. He did a lot of work. Our staff did a lot of work. He came a long way.”
Alongside him on Thursday, the Clippers looked more like the team they want to be — gritty, tough-minded and stifling.
Patrick Beverley bodied up the Spurs’ guards and the Clippers’ bigs, led by Ivica Zubac and Montrezl Harrell, shut down San Antonio’s best interior option, LaMarcus Aldridge, who scored just five points. The Clippers forced 18 turnovers, held the Spurs to 33.3% shooting from deep and held an opponent to fewer than 100 points for the second time this season.
“We made it tough on them and didn’t let them get comfortable,” said Harrell, who also added 24 points off the bench.
The Clippers needed their defense too. Aside from Leonard and Harrell, only Lou Williams finished in double figures scoring (and he needed 19 shots to score his 12 points).
Patrick Patterson and JaMychal Green combined to miss all eight of their three-point shots, and Landry Shamet again struggled from deep, making only one of seven.
But Leonard was rested and ready to do more, to play harder, to make sure his long-term plans for his health didn’t interrupt the Clippers’ short-term needs for a win.
“Tonight, he showed his genius,” Williams said. “He literally made play after play down the stretch, especially in the fourth quarter. I couldn’t get going, nobody else could make shots but he really carried us and made plays, made plays for himself and on the defensive end. So tonight was a great night for him, really showing his genius.”