Column: Kawhi Leonard is an NBA leading man again. Can the rest of the Clippers follow?
The Clippers’ confounding incompetence in recent weeks has obscured a major development unfolding in plain sight.
Kawhi Leonard has reclaimed his place as one of the best players in the NBA.
He’s averaged 28.4 points in the 22 games he’s played since Jan. 8, converting 52.6% of his field goals, including 49.6% of his threes. Equally important: He missed only four games in that stretch and averaged nearly 37 minutes per contest.
Leonard produced his most recent masterpiece on Sunday night when the Clippers ended a five-game losing streak. Leonard scored 15 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ 135-129 victory over a severely short-handed Memphis Grizzlies team.
This wasn’t a blueprint for success or a roadmap to a championship, however. Leonard’s heroics were a bandage that covered up the Clippers’ wounds.
To be clear: The Clippers don’t have a Russell Westbrook problem. The Clippers have a Clippers problem.
The Clippers allowed the Grizzlies to score 51 points in the third quarter before Paul George and Kawhi Leonard took command to end their five-game losing streak.
They entered the season as projected title contenders, yet here they are, one game over .500 and barely hanging on for a spot in the play-in tournament. What other franchise underwhelms like this, year after year?
As much as the comeback win over the Grizzlies showcased the individual talents of Leonard and Paul George, the game also exposed some alarming issues, which could explain why the two stars refrained from making any predictions about the future.
Could the win lead to some positive changes in mentality or confidence?
“Don’t know yet,” Leonard said.
Did the win save the Clippers’ season?
“We’ll see,” said George, who scored a game-high 42 points.
The Clippers weren’t in a position to make any promises, and Leonard and George knew this. The team had just given up 51 points in the third quarter to a version of the Grizzlies who didn’t have Ja Morant.
“Again, this means nothing if we don’t buy into what we can do and what we can be,” George said. “So we’ll see. If we don’t treat the next games with the same [urgency] that we treated that fourth quarter tonight, then what are we doing here? Yeah, we’ll see.”
The Clippers had to win this game, which looked on paper like a gimme. Morant was under league investigation for a video he livestreamed on his Instagram account in which he flashed what looked like a gun while at a nightclub. Dillon Brooks was suspended for picking up too many technical fouls. Brandon Clarke and Steve Adams were unavailable because of injuries.
And how did the Clippers start? By missing eight of their first 12 shots and falling behind, 20-13. So much for their recent declarations about playing with more intensity.
The lack of energy resulted in a nightmare third quarter that was the defensively-challenged team’s worst defensive quarter of the season.
“It’s got to be a record in some sort of capacity,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
The Clippers were down by as many as 16 points in the third quarter. They entered the fourth with a 15-point deficit.
Leonard said, ever succinctly, “We can’t do that.”
The Clippers also looked out of sorts offensively for most of the game, a byproduct of their decision to double down on having a point guard for the sake of having a point guard. As a tempo-pushing guard who can’t shoot, John Wall wasn’t the right playmaker for the Clippers, who are built around a player in Leonard who prefers to play at a more leisurely pace. The Clippers traded Wall, only to replace him with a player with a similar profile in Westbrook.
The Clippers’ decision to sign Russell Westbrook is really dumb. Apparently they didn’t see all the bricks and problems he had playing for the Lakers.
The play of Westbrook is less problematic than why the Clippers thought they needed him to begin with. Westbrook is a symptom. The cause was their purported depth’s failure to amplify Leonard’s and George’s talents the way they envisioned, Leonard’s dominant performances over the last couple of months unable to change the team’s fortunes.
The Clippers were cautiously optimistic they found something during a furious comeback in which they outscored the Grizzlies in the fourth quarter, 38-17.
“I mean, we just played harder,” George said. “We just brought another level. We played with some grit. I just felt tonight we just had a winning spirit.”
Playing like this has been a season-long aspiration. What made the game on Sunday different from their 66 previous games?
“I think it’s 51 points,” George said, recalling the number of points the Clippers gave up in the third quarter. “Fifty-one points will do that to you.”
There’s something disconcerting about a team that has to give up 51 points in a quarter to finally take a look in the mirror. Then again, what else do the Clippers have to build on? Nothing else has worked, and they now have only 15 games remaining in the regular season.
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