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Kawhi Leonard’s steady hand not enough for Clippers in Game 5

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives against Nuggets guard Jamal Murray during Game 5 on Sept. 11, 2020.
The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard drives against the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray during Game 5 on Friday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

For Kawhi Leonard, there are no pregame secret handshakes, just an extended claw for his teammates to slap.

When he’s feeling spicy, he’ll raise it up for a simple high-five. But in the second half of Game 5 on Friday night inside the NBA bubble, Leonard drove to the baseline, hung and hit a tough jumper. After he took that hand and pounded his chest, right over his heart, three times. Later, after drilling a three to put the Clippers up 13, Leonard even pumped that massive right fist.

So when a reporter asked Leonard about his numbers — his 36 points and typical havoc-creation on defense — he wasn’t interested.

This one was important.

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“I’m just trying to win the basketball game,” Leonard said shortly, even by his standards, after the 111-105 defeat. “Next question please.”

The Clippers are going to need to move on with the same determination after squandering a 16-point lead and the chance to eliminate Denver.

Leonard hit half of his 24 shots, including five from deep, he made all seven of his free throws and grabbed nine rebounds to go with four assists, three steals and even more deflections.

His intensity was there from the start of the game, looking down Nikola Jokic on the Clippers’ first possession, hesitating and looking left for just a glance before quickly rising up to hit a jumper. Then on the other end of the floor, it was Leonard reaching out to knock away a pass that would’ve found a wide-open Gary Harris for a corner three.

And later in the game after Denver surged past the Clippers, Leonard knocked down a pair of three-pointers to keep the Clippers in range.

Combined with Paul George, the pair scored 62 of the Clippers’ 105 points. But, they needed more.

“We need everybody,” Leonard said.

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The most obvious place for it to come from would be the Clippers’ bench tandem of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell — a pair of players primarily on the floor because of their offense. Friday, they combined for only 10 points. In every other game this series, they’ve had at least twice that.

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Key plays from the Clippers’ 111-105 loss to the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series Friday.

Leonard’s production has been as steady as it gets this postseason with few exceptions. Of the players still playing in the bubble, no one is averaging more than his 29.8 points. The scoring’s getting done with Leonard’s trademark efficiency too. Of the 20-points-per-game scorers left in the bubble, only Anthony Davis and LeBron James are making a higher percentage of their shots.

Leonard had struggled from deep this postseason, but he even snapped out of that Friday in Game 5.

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His numbers have been almost identical to last postseason, when Leonard led the Toronto Raptors to their first title. This year in Los Angeles, he’s trying to do the same.

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“He’s amazing,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “We couldn’t ask much more of him, honestly.”

They’ll lean on the ultra-serious, ultra-level-headed star to keep the Clippers locked in, to keep them from panicking after letting such a good chance slip through their fingers.

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“He obviously is the most successful player on this team, and he’s been through these. I’ve been through these, but not to the extent he has,” George said after the loss.

“But you rally with a guy that has that experience and knows what he’s talking about. We’re an even-keel group as is. It makes it that much better that our leader is the guy we can fall back on, knowing that we’ll be all right.”


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