Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers Have an NBA Title Switch

Denver Nuggets' Jamal Murray, left, reaches around for the ball as Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) looks for help during the first half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Playoff switches are reserved for the NBA’s longest-tenured ecosystems. The notion that any team can “turn it on” or talent its way to wins and championships is thrown around often, bordering on haphazardly, but the actual concept tends to be most accurate when looking at entrenched cores—nucleuses consisting of players familiar not only with postseason stakes but one another.

None of this, apparently, applies to the Los Angeles Clippers. And, apparently, it shouldn’t. They showed us why, again, during their Monday night victory over the Denver Nuggets, a 113-107 win during which they went through the motions, hinting at both dominance and vulnerability and seesawing along in a way that would’ve cost lesser teams the game long before crunch time.

To say this performative fluctuation is the Clipper way goes a smidge too far. It also isn’t entirely inaccurate.

Nearly no aspect of their success this season is owed to continuity. Though they won free agency last summer without obliterating their supporting cast, they still brought in two superstars who upended an egalitarian pecking order. And if roster turnover wasn’t an actual issue, availability soon became one.

Paul George missed 24 games with right shoulder and left hamstring issues. Patrick Beverley racked up 21 absences with a combination of groin, wrist and calf problems, in addition to a concussion. General career maintenance and a bruised left knee cost Kawhi Leonard 15 games. Landry Shamet missed more than a month with a sprained left ankle.

This is not a squad that enjoyed much better availability later in the season, either. Montrezl Harrell needed to leave the bubble. Lou Williams needed to leave the bubble. Shamet and Ivica Zubac arrived late to the bubble. Beverley’s left calf strain left him sidelined for the final five regular-season games and then limited him to just once appearance against the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.


Continuity hasn't been a strength for the Clippers.

Continuity hasn’t been a strength for the Clippers.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

And yet, despite the Clippers’ relative newness, despite the stop-and-start roster complexion, they are afforded a benefit of the doubt most recently ascribed to the dynastic Golden State Warriors and former Eastern Conference czar LeBron James. They will be fine because they just will be. They have the talent, the depth and the experience. They have Kawhi. Not only that: They have Kawhi and PG.

This optimism isn’t impenetrable. It’s easy to deviate from such warm-and-fuzzies midgame when the Clippers look disengaged and aren’t defending nearly up to their talent level. Even the most established teams aren’t immune to critiques of their motor. The pre-gap-year Warriors and every LeBron team from, like, 2011 through 2018 faced their share of inquiries.

These Clippers haven’t won anything together, though Kawhi is a two-time champ and Finals MVP, and you can rather effortlessly question their stability. One of their starters, Marcus Morris Sr., didn’t even arrive until the trade deadline. He, Beverley, George and Leonard appeared in a whopping 11 games together prior to the playoffs.

That infusion of disbelief is almost always rendered premature. It isn’t a stretch of games or even a span of quarters that changes the tide. It is a collection of moments, sometimes strung together in succession but also frequently packaged together in small bursts separated by minutes, if entire quarters.

In the Game 3 victory over the Nuggets, it was mostly the latter. George largely kept the offense afloat by detonating in streams (32 points on 12-of-18 shooting). Leonard continued to struggle with his three-ball, but he still managed to navigate Denver’s pressure and facilitate out of the pick-and-roll, finishing with 23 points, 14 rebounds and six assists.

The Clippers defense tightened up in the second half, holding the Nuggets to under 50 points—which is saying something—while making their lives hell in the fourth quarter. Leonard’s one-to-three-fingered block on Jamal Murray is a pretty good summation of their effort down the stretch:

This has sort of become a trend for the Clippers. They have a 113.1 defensive rating in the first half of postseason games. That mark improves to 106.5 over the final two frames.

For this series specifically, you’ve been able to set your watch to the Clippers’ second-half uptick:

It is fair to wonder whether they can keep winning this way. The Nuggets missed a good amount of quality looks and are putting up more of a fight than most anticipated, and the level of competition won’t get any easier from here.

Shouldn’t it be concerning that so many of the Clippers’ wins feel like games they’ve survived or stolen? Particularly when they’ll have to beat the Los Angeles Lakers or Houston Rockets and then the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors or Boston Celtics to earn a title?

And that’s assuming they close out in the second round. A 2-1 series lead is an encouraging indicator but not exactly a be-all harbinger. The door at least appears open for Denver to make it out of this series. Game 3 goes a different way if Jamal Murray hits more shots (5-of-17) and Jerami Grant doesn’t go cold from deep (1-of-6).

At the same time, it gets kind of tiring wondering about the Clippers’ capacity to win and framing their victories as escapes. This team is built to have a margin for error, even against the very best.

Leonard’s own switch is impugnable. It exists. He flipped it in Toronto last season while dealing with a bum left knee and emerged from the playoffs with a championship and Finals MVP. George became a punchline for much of the first round because social media revels in the reflexive, but he’s still that guy—the one who can turn in next-level defensive outings against star scorers and float your offense for stretches.

If the superstar angle doesn’t do it for you, the Clippers’ depth should.

Williams isn’t always going to give them solid defensive minutes—the end of the first half on Monday night, anyone?—but he will put pressure on defenses in perpetuity, even when his shot isn’t finding nylon at exceptional clips. It can be tough to separate myth from fact when it comes to Beverley’s defense, and his minus-13 in Game 3 isn’t any easier to discern. But he is a workaholic on the floor and should have more of an impact as he works his way back from that calf strain.

Zubac fouling out might’ve crippled other teams. He is that important to how the Clippers are defending right now and has developed some pick-and-roll synergy with Leonard. It didn’t feel like he was a plus-10 in Game 3 (he was), but even when Nikola Jokic is getting by him or popping or putting him in foul trouble, he so clearly matters.

He’s also not irreplaceable. Not to the Clippers. Head coach Doc Rivers could’ve gone any number of directions once he fouled out. He has Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell. He has JaMychal Green. He has Morris-at-the-5 arrangements in his back pocket. In this case, he chose Harrell, who hasn’t looked great this series, and it went just fine.

Overwhelming opponents with talent and in segments isn’t the soundest championship strategy on its face. For the Clippers, it works. Their status as one of the foremost title favorites would be stronger if their postseason successes felt more thorough, their efforts more complete. Right now, they don’t need them to be. And if they get to a point at which that changes, Kawhi will probably just flip another switch, and the rest will follow.

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