Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers Peaking at Right Time in NBA Playoffs – Bleacher Report

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) gestures in the second half of an NBA conference semifinal playoff basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Thursday, Sept 3, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Any and all meaning assigned to the Los Angeles Clippers’ 120-97 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night must also be administered with a measure of temperance. Blowouts decided before the fourth quarter cannot be the standard in this series, not in the second round, and most assuredly not in the Western Conference.

This particular outcome was pretty much a given before the opening tip—if not a fait accompli, then almost certainly close to it. The Clippers last played on Sunday. It makes sense that Kawhi Leonard (29 points on 12-of-16 shooting) was in his bag.

The Nuggets, on the other hand, are fresh off a physically and emotionally draining seven-game set with the Utah Jazz, in which they needed to come back from a 3-1 series deficit. They last played Tuesday night, less than 48 hours before their opening tip against Los Angeles. Jamal Murray’s face actually plummeted when he realized how quickly Denver must turn around.

Exhaustion may not be a universally accepted excuse, mostly among the you-have-to-want-it crowd, but fatigue is, at bottom, a contributing cause. The Nuggets’ Game 1 progression supports as much.

They went bucket-for-bucket with the Clippers in the opening frame, knotting the score up at 31, but a 38-20 second-quarter onslaught in favor of Los Angeles opened things up for good. Head coach Mike Malone was left waving the white flag by the fourth quarter.

For the Nuggets, in the aftermath of their surrender, this series begins, essentially, on Saturday night. They’re spotting the Clippers a win, which isn’t ideal, but it’s framing around which they can rally—an explanation for what just happened. That context matters, for now, and will continue to until Game 2 ends. 

And yet, the nagging, uncomfortable, seemingly reductive question still needs to be asked: What if it doesn’t?

The Clippers have not come out of nowhere. If they’re not the prohibitive title favorite, they’re among the top two. (Shoutout to the Milwaukee Bucks’ potentially ongoing implosion.) It is not just possible they’re peaking at the right time. It’s probable.

Nothing epitomizes this developing, if inevitable, crescendo better than Patrick Beverley’s return from a left calf strain after making just one appearance in the first round. His play during Game 1 isn’t as symbolic as the fact that he played at all.

The Clippers have spent the entire season waiting to sniff full strength. If they’re not waiting on someone to recover from an injury, they’re waiting out Paul George‘s Disney World jumper, except that doesn’t totally matter, because they’ve always been waiting for someone to recover from injury.

Not anymore.

Beverley's return is symbolic of the Clippers' postseason peak.

Beverley’s return is symbolic of the Clippers’ postseason peak.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press

Beverley played just over 12 minutes against the Nuggets, but they were impactful. He hit some threes (two), grabbed many rebounds (six) and ensured, as always, his presence was felt at the defensive end. More importantly, he represented total availability for the Clippers, a return that felt more like an arrival given how infrequently they’ve had an entire roster at their disposal. 

The starting lineup they deployed in Game 1—Beverley, George, Leonard, Marcus Morris Sr., Ivica Zubac—has logged a combined 165 minutes through the regular season and playoffs. That amounts to barely any time at all, even when accounting for Morris’ trade-deadline arrival.

The Clippers aren’t even technically whole yet. Who knows when Beverley will have the green light to play more minutes. His last appearance before Thursday came more than two weeks ago. Conditioning weighs just as heavily as his injury itself.

Still, for the first time in a long time, and perhaps ever, the Clippers are close to working with their full arsenal of weapons. And they’re playing the basketball to match.

Leonard’s postseason heroism is well established, but even as he bagged his second championship and Finals MVP last year, he was laboring through knee injuries. This is, without question, the healthiest he’s looked since before his initial right quad injury with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s averaging 32.3 points for the playoffs on a mind-melting 64.5 percent shooting inside the arc, including an unreal-yet-somehow-real 59.4 percent clip on twos outside the restricted area.

George received the meme treatment for much of the Clippers’ first-round battle with the Dallas Mavericks. No one is laughing anymore—except maybe him. His shooting remains touch-and-go since his Game 5 detonation versus Dallas (2-of-7 from deep against the Nuggets), but his defensive motor endures, and it’s up to the task of guarding pretty much anyone, even if anyone includes Nikola Jokic:

Morris continues to compete at the less glamorous end and, more critically, is starting to look at home within Los Angeles’ offense. He doesn’t have the ball in hands nearly as much as he did in New York, but he’s embracing a role that affords him situational license and tasks him with downing threes. He went 4-of-5 from long range in Game 1 and is now a bonkers 18-of-31 (58.1 percent) on triples for the playoffs.

Zubac has for the most part moved his feet extremely well outside the paint. He never looked overmatched against whatever frontcourt alignment Dallas uncorked, and that streak has so far extended to Denver. Jokic didn’t come anywhere near gobbling him up and spitting him out.

Good luck to the Nuggets’ backup bigs, specifically Mason Plumlee, as they try to figure out how to deal with the relentless Montrezl Harrell. Lou Williams looks like he’ll eat in measured doses during this series. And then JaMychal Green. That’s it. That’s the sentence. He’s understatedly solid and mostly built to withstand whatever iteration of the Nuggets is on the floor.

The Clippers are whole again, or maybe for the first time. Either way, that's bad news for everyone else.

The Clippers are whole again, or maybe for the first time. Either way, that’s bad news for everyone else.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

Maybe Denver bounces back in Game 2 and beyond. It could happen. Murray will shoot better. Jokic will shoot better. Michael Porter Jr. will definitely shoot better. The Nuggets at large won’t go 9-of-36 (25 percent) from distance every night.

Structurally, though, the Clippers are built to withstand whatever punches Denver throws. Long before now, they had an air of absolute power to them, even when they weren’t fully engaged. They will still have those games in which they’re not going full throttle. To what end that haunts them is debatable, but there’s a chance it’s not at all.

What was before dominance unfinished is now, well, finished. And that is, unequivocally, terrifying.

              

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R’s Adam Fromal.

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