The Clippers’ incompetence in recent weeks has muddied a major development in sight.
Kawhi Leonard has regained his place among the best players in the NBA.
In 22 games since Jan. 8, he’s averaging 28.4 points, making 52.6 percent of his field goals, including 49.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Most importantly: He missed just four games during that stretch and logged nearly 37 minutes per contest.
Leonard produced his latest masterpiece on Sunday night as 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 scrappy Memphis Grizzlies team.
This wasn’t a blueprint for success or a road map to a championship, however. Leonard’s heroics were a bandage covering Clipper’s wounds.
To be clear: The Clippers don’t have a Russell Westbrook problem. The Clippers have a Clippers problem.
They entered the season as projected title contenders, but here they are, a game over .500 and barely hanging on in the play-in tournament. What other franchise doesn’t suffer like this, year after year?
While the comeback against the Grizzlies showcased the individual talents of Leonard and Paul George, the game also brought to light some troubling issues, which could explain why the two stars haven’t made any announcements about their futures.
Could winning lead to some positive changes in mindset or confidence?
Kawhi Leonard misses David Roddy of the Grizzlies.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)
“I don’t know yet,” said Leonard.
Did the win save the Clippers’ season?
“We’ll see,” said George, who scored a game-high 42 points.
The Clippers were in no mood to make promises, and Leonard and George knew it. The team had just given up 51 points in the third quarter to a Ja Morant-less version of the Grizzlies.
“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 few games with the same (urgency) we treated that fourth quarter tonight, what are we doing here? Yes, we’ll see.”
The Clippers had to win this game, which looked like a gimme on paper. Morant was under investigation by the league for a video he streamed live on his Instagram account in which he displayed what appeared to be a gun at a nightclub. Dillon Brooks was penalized for receiving too many technical fouls. Brandon Clarke and Steve Adams were unavailable due to injury.
And how did the Clippers start? Missing eight of the first 12 shots and falling behind, 20-13. So much for the recent declarations about playing with more intensity.
The lack of energy led to a nightmare third quarter, and the defensive challenge was the team’s worst defensive quarter of the season.
“It’s got to be some kind of record,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
The Clippers were down 16 points in the third quarter. They went into the fourth with a 15-point lead.
Leonard said, curtly, “We can’t do that.”
The Clippers also looked good on offense for most of the game, thanks to their decision to double down on having a point guard. As a time pusher who can’t shoot, John Wall wasn’t the right fit for the Clippers, built around a Leonard player who wants to play at a more relaxed pace. The Clippers traded Wall to replace him with a player with a similar profile to Westbrook.
Westbrook’s game hasn’t been as problematic as the Clippers thought they needed to be to begin with. Westbrook is a symptom. The reason was that their supposed depth increased the talent of Leonard and George in the way they predicted, Leonard’s dominance in recent months could not change the fortunes of the team.
The Clippers were cautiously hoping for something because they found something in the fourth quarter to outscore the Grizzlies 38-17 in a furious comeback.
“I mean, we played harder,” George said. “We brought another level. We played with it a little. I felt like we had a winning spirit tonight.”
Playing like this has been a desire all season. What made Sunday’s game different from the previous 66 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 troubling about a team that needs to give up 51 points in a quarter to finally look in the mirror. Also, what else do the Clippers need to build on? Nothing else has worked, and now they only have 15 games left in the regular season.