How Kawhi Leonard Has Fueled The LA Clippers’ Series Comeback Versus Mavericks
Two years ago, Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors were nearly on the brink of elimination. After falling down 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard knew his team was staring down the barrel of an insurmountable margin.
Toronto quickly falling behind in such an important series, considering it was widely-assumed Leonard would only spend one year with the organization, was an alarming moment for everyone. Not quite the time for panic, but stressful enough to induce a team-wide reflection and trigger major changes to the defensive strategy.
Facing a supreme level of pressure and embracing his first major obstacle since departing San Antonio, Leonard had to respond. He ultimately left his mark on that series – and the 2019 playoff run – by emphatically taking control of the toughest defensive assignment while carrying the scoring load on an injured knee.
Although the feeling isn’t quite the same, the crowds aren’t as large, and the first-round lights aren’t as bright, Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers are in the midst of fighting through a similar challenge.
As they trailed 2-0 to begin their first-round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, it was now the Clippers reflecting. It was Leonard and his new team, the franchise who parted with a record number of assets to acquire him and his superstar peer, searching for any possible solution.
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The parallels are eerily close between Toronto’s 2-0 deficit to Milwaukee and L.A.’s surprisingly slow start in this playoff series. For one, it’s not like both teams walked into Game 3 of their respective series and immediately shifted the momentum.
In 2019, on that critical Sunday afternoon in mid-May, the Raptors had to fight tooth and nail to hold off the Bucks. When discussing that series comeback, most fail to remember the Raptors were forced into double-overtime (!) of Game 3, coming within seconds of being shoved into a hole nobody has ever recovered from.
Two years later, the Clippers found themselves down 19 points in the opening frame of Game 3 versus Dallas. With thousands of Mavericks fans screaming and relishing their first real playoff success in years, that game was dangerously close to slipping out of hand for Los Angeles.
In both 2-0 holes, Leonard and his teammates dug deep. They clawed back. They took it one game at a time, contemplating different mid-series adjustments on both ends of the floor. They changed the on-court matchups.
Those Raptors finished off the series with four consecutive wins, outscoring the Bucks 325 to 295 in the final three games following the double-OT thriller. Toronto’s defensive strategy down the stretch of that series centered on forming an unbreakable barrier in the paint against Giannis Antetokounmpo. Placing Leonard on him as the primary defender was a necessary adjustment after Antetokounmpo grilled other defenders in Games 1 and 2.
But, it wasn’t going to be enough. Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse made sure to shrink the floor with his defense, walling off the paint by instructing help defenders to slide over toward the nail and shadowing the 2019 MVP with multiple bodies. There were no easy gaps for him to attack after Milwaukee led the series 2-0. In fact, Antetokounmpo only shot 25-of-55 (45.5%) from two-point range in Games 3-6 with 16 combined turnovers.
The Clippers, led by Leonard and head coach Ty Lue, are up against another one-of-a-kind superstar in this series. His name is Luka Dončić, and while he inflicts a different kind of pain on your defense, it’s actually similar to the level of impact Antetokounmpo provides.
In the first nine quarters of this series (Games 1 and 2, followed by the first quarter of Game 3), Dončić was humiliating everyone on the floor. He was basically making defenders question whether or not they were capable of handling him, and then letting the crowd know it was a losing battle for anyone who tried.
Lue, just like Nurse in Toronto, had to make a change. Then, Leonard had to use his own individual experience to seize the opportunity. He had to step on the gas, commit to being the most frightening two-way talent in the league that he resembled in both the 2017 and 2019 playoff runs, and be the one who shifts this series.
The Clippers elected to go small for the majority of Game 3, inserting Nic Batum when it was clear that Dončić was having his way with Zubac. Then, in Game 4, Lue decided to start Batum right from the jump, giving the Clippers an extra-switchy quartet of Leonard, Batum, Paul George, and Marcus Morris. They surrounded those four with Reggie Jackson, who supplied more offensive juice and a quicker pace than Patrick Beverley.
Part of the starting (and closing) lineup adjustment for the Clippers was to get more spacing and shooting on the floor. However, it was also Lue’s answer to the Dončić problem. By removing a traditional center, the Clippers eliminated a target for him to exploit. Although Jackson – and then ultimately Rondo – was still on the floor to give him a smaller body to pinpoint for mismatches, L.A. collectively made a decision to deny nearly every ball-screen switch Dončić wanted to force.
The strategy for Lue entering Games 3 and 4 focused on keeping the ball in front of them, defend Dončić with just a singular coverage and bait him into taking long, contested jumpshots outside of the paint, and not allow him to mandate who will get switched onto him. In the NBA, the most successful superstars in the playoffs are those who take control and put the defense at mercy. After the first two losses and start of Game 3, the Clippers were no longer going to concede that power to a 22-year-old.
Coinciding with a neck strain that’s currently hindering Dončić, the game plan has worked. In his 36 minutes during Game 4, Dončić had his worst performance of the series and least-efficient scoring night. With only 19 points on just 36.3% true shooting (league-average is roughly 56%). He made just one of his seven three-point attempts – most of them contested a lot tighter than his previous shots in the series.
Of course, there is some injury effects at play here. Mavericks’ head coach Rick Carlisle claimed Dončić couldn’t even turn his head to the left without feeling a lot of pain.
At the same time, it was at least a little reminiscent of the increased defensive intensity the Raptors answered with on Antetokounmpo two years ago, in efforts to save their season. The added physicality, which Lue has often called for. The commitment to giving him more mobile and capable bodies to isolate against, allowing Dončić to work himself into exhaustion. The belief that if you dare him to beat you as a scorer against a loaded defense, the results will work in your favor.
You could just feel the tide starting to turn in Game 4, as the Clippers knew they had settled on the right approach.
In his 33 fourth-quarter minutes throughout this series, Dončić has scored just 15 points on 5-of-19 shooting (26.3%). He’s assisted on seven buckets to his six personal turnovers. The Clippers have also done a stellar job of keeping him off the foul line in these important minutes – they will live with eight total free throw attempts in 33 minutes for the opposing team’s main offensive creator.
In the 88 minutes and 38 seconds of game action since the Clippers fell into a 30-11 hole during Game 3, they have outscored the Mavs by 54 points (213 to 159). The entire mood and complexion of the series has shifted to Los Angeles’s side as they have the momentum heading into a pivotal Game 5 at home.
“The thing I’m most proud of is keeping our poise,” Lue said. “Following the game plan, cleaning up some mistakes, making a couple of adjustments. After two disappointing losses on our home floor, I thought we really had the focus of coming in, taking it one game at a time, and winning these two games. I’m just really proud of the way our guys focused and locked in, especially on the defensive end.”
Being “locked in” defensively goes beyond just playing better one-on-one against your assignment. It also has a lot to do with communication, being on the same page with each other, and forcing difficult possessions as a collective unit.
Something the Clippers started doing a lot more in Games 3 and 4 is working diligently to navigate through (or under) ball-screens set for Dončić, especially if they knew the shot clock was ticking down.
As I slow down the film on this possession, take a look Leonard and Jackson executing this “show and recover” beautifully, where Leonard completely removes the possibility of a switch:
Right as the screen is being set, Leonard fakes as if he’s going over the top. At the last second, as Hardaway Jr. makes contact, Leonard ducks underneath the screen while Jackson makes sure to “tag” Dončić. This gives Leonard just enough time to get back to his man, close the airspace, and pressure the Mavs’ star once again. It leads to a pass, which is a win for the Clippers, and a contested miss by Finney-Smith.
Even if he did managed to get switched off of Dončić, like he does here, Leonard used his keen sense of knowing when to rotate from the weakside to help his teammates. Jackson allows the cut inside by Finney-Smith, but Leonard erases it to save the possession:
While the lineup change helped the Clippers and their game plan was rightfully adjusted, Leonard has proven to be the most valuable ingredient of their turnaround.
In four games, he’s averaged 33.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.3 steals on a mesmerizing 68.5% shooting from two, 47.6% from deep, and 87.5% at the foul line (earning eight free throw attempts per game). His true shooting mark of 74.1% is even higher than Kevin Durant’s through four games, which is not something anyone would have expected based on how lethal KD has been, and the narrative surrounding the Clippers-Mavericks series up to this point.
Examining Leonard’s offensive output against Dallas – not just in this series, but during last year’s bubble first-round as well – one thing is abundantly clear. Not only does Carlisle lack a defensive weapon to stop Leonard for a decent stretch … they don’t have a single person to knock him below these otherworldly efficiency levels:
Your eyes are not deceiving you. Leonard has faced the Mavericks in 10 total games between both first-round series (2020 and 2021). In those 10 games, Leonard has put together an MJ-esque shot diet, with a lot more three-pointers sprinkled in.
In what is truly a remarkable sentence to utter, Leonard is 38-of-50 (76.0%) at the rim against Dallas in those 10 playoff games. He’s knocked down 24 of his 47 mid-range jumpers (51.1%) versus the Mavs’ uninspiring group of wing defenders, none of which have bothered him in the slightest.
Inside, outside, or drawing fouls. With a like-sized player trying to hound him on the perimeter, or centers trying to deter him with their length. None of it has done the trick.
“On both ends – I think rebounding the ball and really attacking,” Lue said about Leonard’s best contributions in this matchup. “I think throughout the course of the season, he coasts sometimes just to prepare for this moment. But the pace and speed he’s playing with is what we need. It’s unbelievable. His quick moves, quick decisions, that’s with our whole team. We talk about getting into the paint and driving the basketball. Kawhi has been phenomenal rebounding the ball and attacking (early).”
Pushing the tempo was one of Lue’s biggest takeaways from the two road victories, and most of that stems from two things: The Clippers getting consistent stops and finishing those defensive possessions with rebounds – which was a problem for them to begin the series – and Leonard making the decision to push after those live boards.
He was the number one tone-setter in Game 4, ensuring the Clippers didn’t shoot themselves in the foot with another slow start. Here, after a Dončić missed free throw, he corrals the rebound and sprints directly down the floor. He realizes the only players in front of him are Dallas’s guards, which makes this a rather easy choice:
Remember, “playing with pace” doesn’t always mean you have to attack in transition. It can simply mean operating with quicker decisions, and pushing the ball into the lane before the defense can register what’s coming.
Here, right as Dallas is thinking the Clippers will slow things down and work in the halfcourt, Leonard receives the pass and immediately charges inside. He manages to split two centers as Porzingis and Kleber attempt to cut off this space, but he still finds his way through the gap:
Knowing he’s quicker and stronger than the Mavs’ best rim protector, he just decides to take Porzingis off the dribble and invites contact.
It does not appear the Clippers respect Dallas’s interior roadblocks. Leonard must view them as light traffic cones he can easily twist around, or simply move out of the way.
In semi-transition, you can see the Mavs trying to load up on Leonard and Zubac’s pick-and-roll set. First, Leonard rejects the screen only to run into a wall of help defenders. Then, he elects to use the Zubac screen, get around Josh Richardson, and discard Porzingis with a subtle nudge from the left arm:
Just throw in Boban Marjanović, the 7’4” giant who gave the Clippers a few nightmares in their series last August.
The only problem is, Leonard’s concern level did not change. To him, the weight and size difference between Porzingis and Marjanović is non-existent. Therefore, we saw Leonard attack the Mavericks’ zone defense by getting a full head of steam, using a Batum screen, and driving full-force at the Mavs’ secret weapon.
If John Wick can overcome Marjanović, I guess Leonard can, too:
The clearest indication of what type of Leonard we would see for the rest of this series came to light on this next possession, though. With the Clippers up 15, it could have been a moment for the team to settle for outside jumpers. It has been the case a few times, notably in the closing minutes of a quarter.
But, they kept emphasizing the rim.
Leonard and Rajon Rondo went to their small-small pick-and-roll actions once again, only this time with Leonard screening. They wanted to force the switch and get Hardaway Jr. matched up with Leonard on the block.
When the switch happens, Rondo makes the entry pass. And this is how you are able to discern which version of Kawhi showed up to the game. If he’s making this spin toward the baseline at the very moment the ball touches his hands, you’re in for a long night:
The Clippers have refused to let off the accelerator since making their 14-0 run in the first quarter of Game 3.
Their nonstop aggression on their drives to the paint have led to the Mavericks – and the Dallas fanbase – questioning the future of their frontcourt with how easily they are giving up restricted area buckets.
In the first four games of this series, the Clippers are registering 12.9 more “drives” per game than they did in the regular season. Although it’s a small sample, that cannot happen if you’re the Mavs:
The Clippers are also converting 60.2% of their attempts when driving to the rim, which leads the playoff field thus far.
Most people analyzing this series – and even the Clippers internally – will first point to their defense as the major change from Games 1 and 2. After all, Dallas is only getting 39.8 drives per game, which is significantly lower than their regular season norm.
However, it’s actually a combination of both their offensive and defensive adjustments. Their flow on offense has looked a lot more purposeful in Games 3 and 4, as opposed to the home games they lost.
The leader behind their comeback is unmistakeable. Leonard has made a strong case for “best player in the series” as it’s now a 2-2 split.
It shouldn’t be a shocking revelation that Leonard comes through and increases his productivity in the postseason. With 128 playoff games in his rearview, Leonard ranks third in NBA history in Box Plus-Minus, which is a metric that attempts to measure a player’s impact on both ends of the floor.
That’s not third in the current league. That’s third all time, behind only two prominent figures on the NBA’s Mount Rushmore:
Leonard failed to come through in the decisive, series-swinging moments of the second round last year. His shot-making disappeared down the stretch and the Clippers’ inability to get easier looks inside the paint started to show.
To begin this year’s playoff run, he appears even stronger. He lit the match that initiated this series comeback. Now, it’ll be up to him to keep adding to the fire.