“Thank you for the banner!” a row of fans wearing Toronto jerseys yelled.
In an era when superstars don’t stay put long, Leonard’s departure from Toronto, only weeks after claiming the 2019 NBA championship, for Los Angeles and the Clippers can feel like an NBA eternity. But that run, and the imprint it left, still is seen today.
Before the Clippers’ 108-100 victory, Toronto coach Nick Nurse recalled the lasting imprint of Leonard “elevating a lot of people’s confidence and people’s game” during his lone Raptors season. Leonard’s ability to make minute defensive adjustments in the span of a timeout or free throw “was amazing,” Nurse said. And he credited Leonard for the development of Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet into stars of their own.
“Kawhi was a 9 to 5, maybe 8: 30 to 4: 30 guy every day. Pascal is the same,” Nurse said. “He’s the first guy at the gym. He and Freddy, every morning. They learned a lot from the day of work. Not just the shooting, the entire day of work of shooting, eating, take care, lifting, stretching, hot tub, cold tub, all that stuff. And Kawhi did all that stuff without batting an eye.”
This is the version of Leonard the Clippers have seen since Jan. 8, a dominant run two months in the making, a span in which Leonard is shooting 48% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers, 51% on pull-up threes, and 59% of shots inside of 10 feet.
In yet another push toward the Clippers’ playoff goals, Leonard punctuated the victory over Toronto with five dunks, each more powerful than the last, the capper his second-half drive into the chest of Raptors center Jakob Poeltl before his right arm slammed the ball over the big man’s head.
“Even when we lost those games we were confident in ourselves,” Leonard said of the team’s recent five-game losing streak. “And I’m on the floor. Whenever I’m playing, I feel like we can win a basketball game.”
Leonard scored 24 points, adding 12 rebounds.
“This last run he’s been on since January has been unbelievable, one of the highest levels I’ve seen, and that’s how we need him to play to be successful every night,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “… That definitely gives us confidence on both sides of the ball that he can be elite.”
Extricating themselves from a potential play-in tournament position will require more players inspiring similar levels of confidence. The Clippers (35-33) remain a work in progress, following a first half filled with turnovers with a snarling, third-quarter defense, allowing 25 points — less than half of the 51 allowed in Sunday’s third quarter against Memphis. Paul George scored 23 points and Lue credited him with setting the strong defensive example the team had pleaded for during two days of practice.
“All our veterans have stepped up,” Lue said, and added, “This should be the blueprint.”
With 14 dunks, one of the NBA’s oldest rosters looked spry in attacking the interior of Toronto’s defense. Ivica Zubac’s rim protection was indispensable. Terance Mann’s role as closer, scoring 14 points in 28 minutes, was invaluable as Lue displayed confidence in finishing the game without a “traditional point guard” despite Toronto’s pressure. Before Russell Westbrook checked out a final time with 17 minutes to play, his small contributions setting screens that turned into points were noticeable, indications of the role he is willing to play on his new team.
But just as noticeable was seeing Toronto grab seven of its 15 offensive boards in the fourth quarter and in the process unfurl an 11-1 run. A once-comfortable 15-point Clippers lead with five minutes left was down to four with 54 seconds to play. The difficult ending mirrored their troubled start, a lack of consistency that will continue to be their most difficult challenge to overcome in this season’s final 14 games.
Leonard opened the game pump-faking Toronto’s OG Anunoby into the air at the three-point line before beating Siakam’s help defense to the rim for a dunk. It was one of the rare first-quarter possessions ending in a Clippers shot.
After four turnovers in fewer than five minutes, including two by Westbrook, Lue replaced his starting guard with Eric Gordon. But only 19 seconds later, Leonard threw a pass picked off by Anunoby. One minute after that, Lue took his second timeout of the quarter after Siakam stole a pass thrown by Gordon.
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 held on to the ball, the Raptors proved
just as ineffective at shooting it, just 39% to enter halftime tied. They finished 38% for the game. This time, the Clippers learned their third-quarter lesson, their defense clamping down. That was new.
What was not, for both the Clippers and Raptors, was witnessing another big night from Leonard.