Clippers: Kawhi Leonard’s sublime first round deserves way more attention

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images /

The LA Clippers flirted with disaster in their first-round playoff series, but Kawhi Leonard’s brilliance pulled them from the brink.

The 2021 NBA Playoffs have represented a changing of the guard, in more ways than one. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers are out; Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns are moving on. Between Booker, Trae Young, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum and most especially, Luka Doncic, the league’s next generation feels ready to take over now.

So ready, in fact, that people are writing off the NBA’s current generation of superstars who aren’t quite prepared to hand over the reins just yet.

The King and his Lakers may have been sent home, but Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant/James Harden and Joel Embiid all lead potential title contenders in the East. The Denver Nuggets may be missing Jamal Murray, but likely MVP Nikola Jokic has been superb. And perhaps most overlooked of all? Kawhi Leonard, whose LA Clippers were pronounced dead at the scene of Game 2 during their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks.

To be fair, it was only natural for panic to sink in. Doncic had proven to be a natural foil for the Clippers last year, and he was even better in this year’s postseason. LA had no answer for him, and even as he wore out later in games from having to be Dallas’ sole creator, the Mavs seemed poised to reignite every bad Clippers narrative that’s ever existed.

But as easy as it was to write off the Clippers for being “choke artists” or for being doomed down in their 0-2 hole with the series shifting back to Dallas, Kawhi simply would not let his team lose.

Kawhi Leonard was sublime in the first round

In Game 3, coming off a 41-performance in Game 2 that ended in defeat, Leonard’s 36 points on 13-of-17 shooting propelled LA to a much-needed win. He followed up with 29 points and 10 boards in a Game 4 rout, and though he faltered in a pivotal Game 5 loss, he more than did his part to make up for it in Games 6 and 7:

In a masterful Game 6, Leonard put up 45 points on 18-of-25 shooting. In Game 7, his well-rounded 28 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 steals on 10-of-15 shooting carried the day, helping the Clippers stave off what would’ve been a very embarrassing first-round defeat.

For the series, Leonard wound up averaging 32.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.0 blocks per game on 72.3 percent true shooting. He joined Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bernard King and Shaquille O’Neal as the only players in NBA history to score at least 200 points on 60 percent shooting in a single playoff series, and heading into Game 7 (where he shot 10-for-15), he was the most efficient jump shooter of the 2021 postseason.

It feels like more people should be talking about … literally any of that!

It’s understandable why that is. With all the excitement over the next generation of NBA superstars that is developing right in front of our eyes, plus the joy it gives people to slander the Clippers in general, watching a one-man show like Luka Doncic push them to the brink was a perfect storm. But people were far too quick to write off an established superstar with ample playoff experience like Leonard, and as Doncic’s supporting cast faded, the Clippers’ best player turned the tide.

People’s faith in Kawhi’s playoff prowess was shaken when LA choked away a 3-1 series lead in the NBA bubble last year, especially because the Klaw was mediocre in Game 6 and downright bad in Game 7. But it’s borderline shameful how quickly everyone forgot about the magical championship run he put together for the Toronto Raptors literally one year prior.

At one point in those playoffs, Kawhi’s Raptors had trailed 2-0 in a series as well. They went on to win four straight games in those Eastern Conference Finals before finishing off the injury-riddled Golden State Warriors in the Finals. It took a full seven games to get the job done this time around, but with an improved Paul George, 3-point shooters who finally woke up and not enough aid for Doncic, Leonard led the Clippers where they needed to go.

It doesn’t get any easier from here; Los Angeles will need to be much better on both ends of the floor if it wants to knock off the top-seeded Utah Jazz, who are a far more complete, balanced team. There will be no room for a reappearance from “Pandemic P,” and the Clippers will need to shoot the ball better from the start of the series.

But this team exorcised some serious demons by coming back from that 3-2 deficit against Luka’s Mavs, and although they still have some work to do on that front before earning the franchise’s first-ever conference finals, Kawhi Leonard is already proving he’s still an NBA superstar worth talking about. The Jazz present a much bigger challenge on the defensive end, but don’t be surprised if the Klaw rises to the occasion once again.

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