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Clippers

Kawhi Leonard faces NBA MVP for first time since meeting in Eastern Conference finals

Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo drives against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half Friday in Cleveland.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo drives against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first half Friday in Cleveland.
(Tony Dejak / Associated Press)

He’s arms, shoulders and legs — a combination of strength, size and skill that’s rare even in the NBA. He’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the NBA’s reigning Most Valuable Player, and the player that gets the most ink in scouting reports — and not because of his last name’s wingspan.

“He’s aggressive, plays the game extremely hard, very skilled. He’s a 7-foot guy who can handle the ball, dribble by defenders into the paint, make a great move in the post,” Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard said. “And he’s hitting the outside shot a little bit more this year. He can pass the ball. All that added together is really tough.”

If voter fatigue isn’t a factor, Antetokounmpo could very well be the MVP for a second-straight season, his 31 points, 13.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game have the Bucks tied for the best record in the NBA. They’ve won 13 straight and demolished their last three opponents by at least 24 points.

But Friday, Antetokounmpo will see Leonard on the court for the first time since he couldn’t get past the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals; a two-games-to-none Bucks’ advantage swung the other way once Leonard switched to one of the NBA’s toughest covers.

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“It’s not about the guy who’s guarding him,” Leonard maintained before the Clippers held a rare practice Thursday. “It’s not a one-on-one league. … We just have to focus to try and make it harder for him to score the ball.”

Landry Shamet and Rodney McGruder are traveling with the Clippers on their six-game road trip with the intent of getting back on the court at some point.

On paper, the Clippers have the tools. There’s Leonard, who has done it before. There’s Paul George, who is also physically capable of guarding Antetokounmpo for stretches. And there’s Maurice Harkless, the logical choice to get the first crack at the Bucks’ star.

Antetokounmpo has scored fewer than 25 points only three times this season, and the Bucks have lost just one of those games. That night, early this season against the Celtics, Antetokounmpo was still an efficient eight-of-13 from the field.

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“Certain guys are going to get their numbers,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You’d like to dictate how they get those numbers. Somehow, sometimes the way they get those numbers help you win. If you just allow them to [get numbers their way], they’re going to win.”

After Friday night‘s meeting in Milwaukee, the Clippers won’t face the Bucks again this season unless the teams meet in the NBA Finals. And it could happen. Rivers called the Bucks the favorite in the East.

If that series happened, the Clippers could unfurl all sorts of exotic coverages and different strategies against the Bucks superstar. With just a single practice notice? It’ll be more about providing just enough resistance against Antetokounmpo.

“Every game is a test,” Leonard said multiple times. “...We’ve got to go out there and be ourselves.”

The Clippers were resourceful in their win over the Portland Trail Blazers, but their victory was even more impressive considering they’re still maturing.

Notes

JaMychal Green, who missed Tuesday’s game with a bruised tailbone, was limited in Thursday’s practice and is questionable for Friday’s game with the Bucks. … Rodney McGruder and Landry Shamet will both remain out Friday.

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AT MILWAUKEE

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When: Friday, 5:30 p.m. PST

On the air: TV: Prime Ticket; Radio: 570

Update: The Bucks (19-3) own the NBA’s second-best offensive rating and top defensive rating thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Clippers’ (16-6) practice Thursday was their first since Nov. 9.


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