It’s hard to know exactly what this was Tuesday night at Staples Center, a Clippers team getting right after a stretch of uninspired basketball or catching one of the worst teams in the NBA on its second consecutive night of action in Los Angeles.
Whatever it was — and it almost certainly was a healthy serving of both — the Clippers needed it, looking more like the team people thought they could be than the listless one that’s hovered around .500 for the last month.
A big part of the reason? Kawhi Leonard was at his absolute best, outmuscling and outshooting anyone the Cleveland Cavaliers put between him and the basket in an easy 128-103 win.
Leonard scored 43 points in under 29 minutes, hitting 14 of 22 from the field, six of 10 from three-point range and nine of 10 from the foul line in his most dominant performance of the season.
“It was nice. I had a good seat,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “…When Kawhi is that efficient, it’s pretty impressive to watch.”
Finding a signature stretch on a night when he was so consistently lethal isn’t easy, but Leonard’s 15-point second quarter might have been it. With the game tight — the Clippers even trailed briefly — Leonard broke things open from deep, hitting four three-pointers in the quarter while the lead ballooned to 16.
While most of the quarter was about showcasing his skill, the final play of the first half was all about his strength. With the clock winding toward zero, Leonard streaked down the middle of the court and split Cleveland’s young backcourt, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, for a dunk and the foul.
“He’s a superstar in this league,” teammate Montrezl Harrell said. “It’s nothing really new to me. He can get hot on any given night.”
This was special, though. Leonard is just the fourth player to score at least 43 points in less than 29 minutes, joining Stephen Curry, Kemba Walker and Klay Thompson, who has done it twice.
If it were just Leonard, the Cavaliers, already in trouble with Kevin Love sitting out the second night of a back-to-back, might’ve been able to hang in there. But the Clippers’ star was far from alone.
“It takes a whole team,” Leonard said.
Early in the game it was Patrick Beverley, fighting for rebounds, distributing the ball and getting hot from deep. On one first-quarter possession, Beverley grabbed three offensive rebounds on the same possession, leading to a three-pointer. Center Ivica Zubac was a factor on both ends, scoring 12 points to go with 10 rebounds on one end while swatting four shots on the other.
And Lou Williams was just as hot as Leonard, hitting 10 of 13 from the floor on his way to 24 points in 19 minutes. Even Landry Shamet, whom the Clippers have struggled to get into a rhythm, sprung free to hit four three-pointers.
“Everybody else kind of took a lot of pressure off of him,” Beverley said of Leonard. “I hit a couple of early ones. Teams can’t leave. Sham hit some early. When guys around him hit some early shots, you can’t really load up. Once that was done, he kind of found his way to put the ball in the hole.”
It was impressive, but it’s impossible to ignore who was on the other side of the court.
Sexton led the Cavaliers, who never threatened after Leonard’s second-quarter surge, with 25 points while Cedi Osman added 21. Tristan Thompson went scoreless, as did Brandon Knight, who led the Cavaliers with 26 minutes off the bench.
The Clippers will host 19-21 Orlando one night after the Magic, just like the Cavaliers, also play the Lakers.
The Clippers still haven’t beaten a winning opponent since downing the Lakers on Christmas. They’ve beaten 15-win Sacramento, 14-win Detroit, 11-win New York, nine-win Golden State and now 12-win Cleveland.
Their last three losses have come to surging Utah, Memphis and Denver.
Blowing out Cleveland doesn’t change that, and Rivers doesn’t mind.
“If we had won by one and didn’t play well, I’d still see the big picture,” Rivers said. “I think this was a game everyone else needed to see from us.”