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Be like Kawhi: Tyronn Lue hoping for more energy from Clippers in Game 2

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, rear, tries to block a shot by Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during Game 1 on Tuesday.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Earlier this season, Kawhi Leonard resumed a practice he’d stopped almost four years earlier: playing on consecutive nights.

After an injury wiped out his 2018 season, the All-Star forward was used extremely conservatively the following season with Toronto. The result — his second championship — plus offseason surgery in 2019 led him to continue the habit during his first season as a Clipper.

But healthier and challenged to become a more engaged leader, Leonard played six back-to-backs this season and produced effective results, only some of which were quantifiable. Leonard shot 54% overall and 41% on three-pointers on zero days of rest, and coach Tyronn Lue said last month that in the locker room “just showing that he wants to win, he wants to be there for his teammates, that was a huge step forward for us.”

The decision to increase his workload paid dividends again during the Clippers’ first-round victory against Dallas. Leonard was at his best when the turnaround between games was fastest, shooting nearly 65% and 47% on three-pointers while averaging 31.3 points on only one day of rest.

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The Clippers might have wanted a matchup with Utah in the second round of the playoffs, but Los Angeles blew an opportunity to take control of series.

Lue hoped it would bode well for the Clippers’ series opener against Utah on Tuesday, played only two days after a Game 7 win to close out the Mavericks. Instead, the Clippers “came out flat,” as Leonard said, during a third quarter that cost them a series-opening loss, and marked Lue’s first loss in the second round in 13 tries as a coach.

There was little time to wallow in what-if: Game 2 is Thursday, the Clippers’ fifth game in nine days.

“This is playoff basketball, so you just have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to win,” said Leonard, who made nine of his 19 shots. “There’s no complaints here. I’m having fun and playing basketball, and it’s a challenge that you just have to overcome and you can just face and have fun with.”

If the Clippers’ legs were one factor in the 112-109 loss, they nonetheless called it no excuse for other mistakes that contributed to a second consecutive series-opening loss.

Clippers-Jazz series schedule.
(Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)

“We can’t let ourselves go down 2-0 again,” center Ivica Zubac said. “We’ve got to have the mentality to win every game.”

That missing mentality, to Lue, was seen in his team’s lack of physicality. Utah blew through the Clippers’ screens, pushed them out of the way for 12 offensive rebounds and wings Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neale were effective in denying Leonard passes, making him work harder to get the ball.

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“We’ve got to just own our space,” Lue said. “We can’t get caught up in the referees and the officials. We’ve got to play through the contact, and we’ve got to be physical on the offensive end, getting to our spots, running our sets, getting our catches on the elbow.”

Said Zubac: “I feel like in the playoffs you’ve got to have that mindset going into every game just to hit first and be physical. I don’t think it has to do anything with fatigue or anything like that. It’s just a mindset. ”

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Video highlights from the Utah Jazz’s 112-109 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on June 8, 2021, in Salt Lake City.

That mindset does not require an all-out effort to get to the rim offensively, Lue stressed. Anchored by the defense of Rudy Gobert, the two-time former defensive player of the year, the Jazz are not Dallas, whose rim protection inspired so little fear that Lue openly stated their Round 1 offensive strategy was to “get to the rim or die trying.”

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If Clippers ballhandlers come off a screen and see Gobert — whom Lue called “the best rim protector in the league” and the best pick-and-roll defender, too — standing several feet away, inside the paint in “drop” coverage, Lue would rather they shoot the open jumper than attempt to create contact and risk a block. The Clippers made 45% of their uncontested shots in Game 1, compared to 34% of contested attempts.

“When Rudy is guarding you one-on-one or they switch or they veer, I think you’ve got to just take the shot,” Lue said. “Just take the shot because you drive into the paint, they’re fanning out so there’s no alleys to pass the basketball, and Rudy is pretty good at the rim.”

The Clippers fell 112-109 to the Jazz in Salt Lake City in Game 1 of their second-round series, as Donovan Mitchell scored 45 to lead the comeback.

On his worst shooting nights this season, Paul George has played his best by continuing to attack the rim to generate fouls. But that avenue to get himself in rhythm could be taken away by Gobert’s presence. George failed to score in the paint in Game 1, though he did draw five shooting fouls in the paint, Three occurred when Gobert was on the floor.

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Lue said both guard Patrick Beverley (six minutes) and third center DeMarcus Cousins (four minutes) will play more throughout the series, with Cousins’ opening provided by back spasms that have ruled out Serge Ibaka for a seventh consecutive game. For the Jazz, guard Mike Conley has been listed as questionable to play because of his right hamstring strain that caused him to miss the opener.

“We’ve got to find more minutes for [Cousins],” Lue said. “It’s just hard to play two centers off the bench when you start small, so that was the tough part about it. But I did like what he brought — brought some toughness, brought some physicality, and we’re going to need that this series.”


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