Strictly business: In Kawhi, the Clippers trust

  • NBA writer for ESPN.com since 2008
  • Former contributor and editor at NPR

It’s difficult to doubt the LA Clippers’ personnel and its potential. Yet coming into this conference semifinals series against the Denver Nuggets, we still hadn’t seen the fully-intact, healthy Clippers play championship-quality basketball for a sustained stretch of time longer than 10 days after the All-Star break and before the March suspension.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the Clippers can’t win a title — the talent is undoubtedly there — just that there tends to be more empirical evidence of dominance before a team is anointed as an elite championship contender.

If Game 4 of the first-round series victory over the Dallas Mavericks marked the beginning of the Clippers’ case for title favorites, then their 120-97 Game 1 bludgeoning of the Nuggets continues that drive. A team that was advertised during the preseason as a two-way monster that could dominate on both ends of the floor posted a true shooting percentage of 65.6, while holding the normally high-octane Nuggets to only 51.1.

One quick scan of the Clippers’ roster is eye-popping. They have defensive stoppers all over the floor, and a pair of two-way superstars, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who can draw blood from a stone in the half-court. When fully healthy, this is a team that counts Patrick Patterson and Rodney McGruder as its 11th and 12th men.

Yet during the regular season, the Clippers utilized the third-most starting lineups in the NBA. George started the season inactive while recovering from shoulder surgery. Throw in Leonard’s careful load management program and some midseason acquisitions, and the Clippers were never quite whole.

Banking on a team with such a thin record of success might be irrational exuberance. But seven games into the Clippers’ playoff run, Leonard has demonstrated he’s reason enough to justify blind faith in the team.

After the Clippers closed out the Mavericks, George called Leonard, “a man of business.” This joins “the board man,” and “the claw,” as handles for a guy who, per usual, deflected any opportunity to talk about his game following the win. Teammates, however, obliged.

“One thing about [Kawhi] is, you know he’s going to be prepared,” said Marcus Morris Sr. “The way he approaches the game … he’s a great player. He’s right up there. He’s a good guy to have on your team, especially around this time. He locks in and you know what you’re going to get from him.”

In Game 1, the two-time Finals MVP controlled possession after possession. He finished the night with 29 points on 12-for-16 shooting from the field. Though the Nuggets struggled defensively in their quarterfinals series against the Utah Jazz, they deploy a couple of strong individual defenders in Jerami Grant and Gary Harris.

But Leonard has a way of rendering formidable opponents ineffectual — neither of them were a match for Leonard. He blew by, outmuscled, and froze Nuggets defenders at will.

Leonard assembled one of the most impressive postseason runs in NBA history with the Toronto Raptors last season, and there’s little reason to believe he won’t replicate that production. Through seven games, he’s averaging 32.3 points and nine rebounds per game with a gaudy 65.7 true shooting percentage.

He’s not alone. During the Dallas series, nine of the Clippers’ 10 rotation players ran up true shooting marks of greater than 58 percent — George the only exception. George appeared frustrated during the quarterfinals, and he revealed that the isolation of the bubble was a mental health challenge for him.

George wasn’t a lethal scorer on Thursday night, but he was a strong contributor on both sides of the ball. Before halftime, there was George wrestling Jokic in the post, denying him the entry pass. After halftime, he put Jokic on roller skates with a step-back 3-pointer. Along with Leonard and Marcus Morris Sr., he helped contain the flammable Jamal Murray, who was coming off a historic quarterfinals series. Given the unit around him, George doesn’t have to be superhuman to win with the Clippers — he just needs to be himself.

The NBA’s salary cap structure forces most superteams to scrimp on the supporting cast. That’s not the case for the Clippers, who craftily managed to hoard a roster full of complementary parts, each bringing their own brand of production. Among the embarrassment of riches was Marcus Morris, Sr., lifted from the New York Knicks in a mid-season trade.

Morris provided stretch and physicality in Game 1, knocking down four of his five 3-point attempts, and working with Leonard and George on the perimeter to contain Denver’s perimeter attack. He and Patrick Beverley are, in Doc Rivers’ language, the Clippers’ instigators.

Beverley was at the Clippers’ disposal for the first time since Game 1 of the Dallas series. Though he played only 12 minutes due to a minutes restriction, it was a vintage (if abbreviated) exhibition of all things Beverley: ball pressure at the top of the floor, and a pair of early corner 3-pointers as a spacer off the ball.

Finally, Montrezl Harrell looked like his old self on Thursday in the second unit. He had been playing his way back into shape after taking time away from the team to attend to a death in the family.

“It’s great to have everybody together,” George said. “We’ve been saying it all year. It’s good for us to continue to build this chemistry.”

Becoming whole has been a gradual process for the Clippers, but with Beverley’s return they are again, for the first time in ages, at 100% availability. For a few minutes in Game 1, with Beverley hounding the ball, Leonard finding his spots, Morris raining down bombs, Harrell wreaking havoc, and George being himself, the sketch started to come into focus.

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