Eyes on the rim, feet on the line, Kawhi Leonard lined up to shoot a free throw for the Clippers against Toronto on Wednesday night when a scream erupted in Section 112 inside Crypto.com Arena.
“Thanks for the banner!” shouted a line of supporters wearing Toronto jerseys.
In an era where superstars don’t stick around for long, Leonard’s departure from Toronto, just weeks after winning the 2019 NBA championship, could feel like an NBA eternity for Los Angeles and the Clippers. But that run, and the mark it left, can still be seen today.
Before the Clippers’ 108-100 win, Toronto coach Nick Nurse recalled Leonard’s lasting impact on “raising people’s confidence and people’s games a lot” in his lone Raptors season. Leonard’s ability to make defensive adjustments minutes in a timeout or free throw “was impressive,” Nurse said. And he credited Leonard with making Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet stars.
“Kawhi was 9 to 5, maybe 8:30 to 4:30 every day. Pascal is the same,” said the Nurse. “He’s the first guy in the gym. Him and Freddy, every morning. They learned a lot from the day’s work. Not just the shooting, the whole day’s work of filming, eating, caring, lifting, stretching, hot bath, cold bath, all that stuff. And Kawhi did all that stuff without an eye.”
This is the version of Leonard The Clippers have seen since Jan. 8, a dominant two-month run in which Leonard is shooting 48% on catch-and-shoot threes, 51% on pull-up threes. , and shot 59% from within 10 feet.
In another push for the Clippers’ playoff scoring streak, Leonard punctuated the win over Toronto with five shots, each one stronger than the last, in the second half as his cap hit Raptors center Jakob Poeltl’s chest before his right arm knocked the ball away. on the head of the great man.
“Even when we lost those games we had confidence in ourselves,” Leonard said of the team’s last five-game losing streak. “And I’m on the ground. Every time I’m playing, I feel like we can win a basketball game.”
Leonard scored 24 points, adding 12 rebounds.
“This recent streak since January has been incredible, one of the highest I’ve seen, and that’s how we need to play every night to be successful,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “… That definitely gives us confidence on both sides of the ball that he can be elite.”
More players will need to inspire a similar level of confidence to get out of a potential position to play in the tournament. The Clippers (35-33) are still on the mend after a first half filled with stout third-quarter defense that allowed just 25 points — less than half of the 51 they allowed in the third quarter against Memphis on Sunday. Paul George scored 23 points and Luek credited him with putting in the strong defensive pattern the team asked for during the two days of practice.
“All of our veterans have stepped up,” Lue said, adding, “That should be the plan.”
Clippers’ Paul George (13) drives to the basket on defense from Toronto Raptors’ Scottie Barnes (4) and Will Barton (5) during the second half at Crypto.com Arena on Wednesday.
(Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
With 14 dunks, he looked like one of the oldest rosters in the NBA to attack the interior of Toronto’s defense. Ivica Zubac’s rim protection was essential. The role of Terance Mann, who scored 14 points in 28 minutes, was essential as Lue, despite the pressure from Toronto, showed confidence to finish the game without his “regular point guard”. Before Russell Westbrook checked his final game time with 17 minutes left, screens were evident to set up his small contributions that turned into points, indicative of the role he is ready to fill on his new team.
But just as remarkable was the fact that Toronto grabbed seven of its 15 offensive boards in the fourth quarter and went on an 11-1 run in the process. The Clippers’ lead was a comfortable 15 points with five minutes left, four with 54 seconds to play. The difficult finish mirrored the troubled start, a lack of consistency that will remain the most difficult challenge to overcome in the final 14 games of this season.
Leonard blew Toronto’s OG Anunoby open the game at the three-point line before beating Siakam’s help defense to the rim. It was one of the rare first-quarter possessions that ended with a Clippers shot.
After four turnovers in less than five minutes, including two by Westbrook, Lue replaced his starting guard with Eric Gordon. But 19 seconds later, Leonard threw a pass that was picked off by Anunoby. A minute later, Lue made his second layup after quarterback Siakam stole Gordon’s pass.
The turnovers had the effect of distilling a game of complex scheme and execution into a straightforward math problem. The Clippers took 25 fewer shots. But as poor as the Clippers kept the ball, the Raptors proved
just as effective at shooting, just 39% to go into halftime tied. They finished the game 38%. This time, the Clippers learned their lesson in the third quarter, holding tight on defense. That was new.
What wasn’t, for both the Clippers and the Raptors, was another big night for Leonard.