Kawhi Leonard has the biggest hands in the game and his fingerprints are lacking in this series and for most of the playoffs.
Paul George has every reason to embark on a Playoff Redemption Tour given what happened to him last year – and the year before, and the year before – but it hasn’t happened yet on stage and it’s getting late and people are getting restless.
The Clippers are down 0-2 against the Jazz in the second round, just as they previously were against the Mavericks, and that was largely due to another 0-2: their stars, for the second straight series, are at the other star’s lagging behind on the other team.
Donovan Mitchell follows Luka Doncic in being a problem for the Clippers, crushing them in Game 1 for the Jazz and then returning on Thursday with an almost equally stellar performance in Utah. 117-11 victory. This in itself is somewhat understandable. Mitchell, during his short time in the NBA, established himself as a player designed for the spring and summer, when the lights come on and his team craves a savior.
Ditto for Doncic; his style of play, competitive nature and tenacity lends itself to another level of basketball, motivating him to take on the challenges this time of year.
But shouldn’t the Clippers get the same jaw-dropping results from Leonard and George, who are supposed to make a difference, who have to take big hits in tense times rather than Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris and… Patrick Beverly?
Kawhi and PG weren’t great on Thursday; they just weren’t great. Neither Clipper was the best player on the pitch. Neither had what could be described as an oh-wow moment. Neither was a factor in the closing minutes and certainly not the result, a loss that put the Clippers in another hole to start a series.
Leonard was defiantly defended by Bojan Bogdanovic, who stripped him once in a revealing save late in the fourth quarter, and mostly kept the former MVP of the Final twice silent when it mattered. The numbers will say 21 points for Leonard, but no one can remember those who shouted loudly. Also, he had three turnovers and seemed out of sync at times.
For a player who has handled the load throughout this compressed season, Kawhi has only played with a day off between games since May 28. Is it fair to wonder if this calendar “blizzard” is catching up to him?
At least he had 45 and 41 point games in the previous round. George, on the other hand, is still waiting for a game and a signature stretch. You can argue that Leonard is forced to carry more than his share of a load that was designed to be handled equally in between.
Instead, George had his second consecutive shooting game below par, and for the third straight playoffs he’s especially struggling to find consistency in depth, logging in just 32% in the playoffs.
Again: as a duo, Kawhi and George did not crater; they just haven’t matched the intensity, impact and pop like Doncic in round one or Mitchell so far in round two.
Mitchell at one point led the Clipper duo 72-66 in the first six quarters of this series, and for the two games combined he’s just nine points short. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story; Mitchell made plays, the kind that pissed off his teammates, cranked up the volume inside the home arena, and took the other team’s breath away.
Mitchell was the league’s most prolific goalscorer during the last two playoffs combined, and most remarkably finished strong on a sore ankle in Game 2. When not punishing the Clippers, his supporting cast always seemed to respond with a timely 3 points whenever LA mustered enough energy to close the scoring.
That’s what a top playoff player is supposed to do, but in those Clippers’ playoffs, except for a pair of solid efforts from Kawhi, this performer has been on the other team. for nine games so far.
The spotlight of suspicion will only intensify for George the rest of this series. If you remember, most of his playoff troubles date back to three years ago, coincidentally, in Utah, when he and Oklahoma City lost in six games to that same jazz franchise. The following year, Damian Lillard’s epic basket won the George series with his mocking farewell wave. Then last season, when George played poorly throughout the playoffs and found himself empty in a Game 7 against the Nuggets, the noise from the audience directed at him was deafening.
But basketball is funny sometimes. Stories, perceptions, and reputations can suddenly tip over if someone takes a hammer from them. What Kawhi and George still have is the luxury of time. There’s another game coming up to create an entirely different conversation.
Those two couldn’t stop the Clippers from falling 0-2 again. To get the most out of it, they’ll have to do to Jazz what Mitchell does to the Clippers. It certainly can, and at this point, given the sudden sensitivity of the situation they find themselves in, do they have any other choices?
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