When the Clippers visited San Antonio last month, Kawhi Leonard was an unwelcome guest in the arena he once called home.
Leonard was booed when he was introduced. He was booed whenever he touched the ball in his team’s loss.
He figures to be the target of similar fury Saturday night, when the Clippers return to the AT&T Center to take on the Spurs.
Then comes the Christmas Day showdown against the Lakers at Staples Center.
Three games, three emotionally charged environments.
How the Clippers hold up under such conditions should be a subject of interest, particularly in the wake of their 122-117 loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday night.
The defeat was revealing, as their Chernobyl-scale meltdown that cost them a 15-point halftime lead was a potential forewarning of problems they could encounter in the playoffs.
In a close game against a hated rival, the Clippers froze. They couldn’t get stops. Leonard was ineffective down the stretch, as he attempted to take over a game that was perhaps best left in George’s hands.
Suddenly, picturing their demise didn’t require much imagination.
The Clippers have the stars and the depth necessary to win an NBA championship. What they might lack is the stomach.
“That’s on myself, being one of the veterans on the team,” George said. “Just changing the focus, gearing it towards finishing the game, getting good shots, good looks, taking that focus off of the officiating. That’s on me. We’ll be better.”
George’s sense of accountability was refreshing. But that doesn’t guarantee the Clippers anything.
Against the Rockets, the Clippers looked like a team that has only one player who has won a championship.
Which is what they are. Leonard is the lone player on the roster with a ring.
As their halftime lead vanished, the Clippers became fixated more on the calls that went against them and less on their high-scoring opponents.
“We lost our composure overall as a team,” coach Doc Rivers said.
Over the final 24 minutes, their dislike of the Rockets surfaced in unproductive ways, as they did more complaining than playing.
Lou Williams lost his composure when he was whistled for a questionable foul on Russell Westbrook early in the fourth quarter, resulting in two technical fouls and an ejection.
Patrick Beverley fouled out when he was whistled for an entirely unnecessary infraction at midcourt and then was ejected. Less than three minutes remained in the game. The Clippers were down by only three at the time.
Neither player addressed reporters after the game.
Especially disappointing was how the Clippers folded after playing what might have been their best half of the season.
With Beverley smothering James Harden, the Clippers went into halftime with a 69-54 advantage.
Harden had only seven points at the break on two-for-seven shooting. Westbrook was the only Rockets player in double figures with 15 points.
“We played at the best pace, I thought, we’ve played at all season,” Rivers said. “Makes or miss, pushing the ball up the floor. Floor was spaced. We were trusting the pass.”
Then came the third quarter, by the end of which the Rockets were ahead.
Westbrook and Harden combined for 20 points in the period. Westbrook finished with a game-high 40 points. Harden had 28.
The Clippers made only four of 16 field-goal attempts in the third quarter, including one of seven three-pointers.
“We didn’t have no pace, really,” Leonard said. “Just coming down, one-dribble shots. We really didn’t run no offense.”
Rivers said the loss could be a learning experience. The next few games will present them with opportunities to show what they gained.
The crowd in San Antonio likely will remain hostile toward Leonard. George said he is ready for however the fans in Oklahoma City treat him.
“I’ve seen it all,” he said.
Earlier this month, George was booed in Indiana, where he played the first seven seasons of his career.
“I’ve had the worst; don’t think it can get any worse than Indiana,” he said.
Counting their matchup against the Lakers, the upcoming stretch of games should help the Clippers prepare for the postseason, where every game will be emotional, every fourth quarter tense and every call important.
They will have to learn to remain calm in this chaos. If they don’t, another failure will be added to the franchise’s tortured history.