The Clippers’ confusing incompetence in recent weeks has obscured an important development that unfolded in plain sight.
Kawhi Leonard has reclaimed his place as one of the best players in the NBA.
He has averaged 28.4 points in the 22 games he has played since January 8, converting 52.6% of his field goals, including 49.6% of his threes. Equally important, he missed just four games in that stretch, averaging nearly 37 minutes per game.
Leonard produced his most recent masterpiece on Sunday night as the Clippers ended a five-game losing streak. Leonard scored 15 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter of the Clippers’ 135-129 victory over a severely understaffed Memphis Grizzlies team.
However, this was not a blueprint for success or a roadmap to a championship. Leonard’s exploits were a bandage covering the Clippers’ wounds.
To be clear, the Clippers don’t have a Russell Westbrook problem. The Clippers have a Clippers problem.
They entered the season as projected title contenders, but here they are, one game over .500 and barely striving for a spot in the play-in tournament. What other franchise is so overwhelming, year after year?
While the comeback win over the Grizzlies showcased Leonard and Paul George’s individual talents, the game also revealed some alarming issues, which could explain why the two stars refrained from making predictions about the future.
Could the win lead to some positive changes in mindset or confidence?
“I don’t know yet,” said Leonard.
Did the win save the Clippers’ season?
“We’ll see,” said George, who scored a game-high 42 points.
The Clippers couldn’t promise anything, and Leonard and George knew it. The team should have conceded just 51 points in the third quarter to a version of the Grizzlies that did not have a Ja Morant.
“Again, this means nothing if we don’t believe in what we can do and what we can be,” George said. “So we’ll see. If we don’t treat the next games with the same (urgency) as that fourth quarter tonight, what are we doing here? Yes, we’ll see.”
The Clippers needed to win this game, which looked like a gimme on paper. Morant was under competition scrutiny for a video he livestreamed on his Instagram account of him flashing what appeared to be a gun while at a nightclub. Dillon Brooks is suspended for too many technical fouls. Brandon Clarke and Steve Adams were unavailable due to injuries.
And how did the Clippers come about? By missing eight of their first 12 shots and falling behind, 20-13. So much for their recent statements about playing with more intensity.
The lack of energy resulted in a nightmarish third quarter that was the defensively challenged team’s worst defensive quarter of the season.
“It has to be a record somehow,” said coach Tyronn Lue.
The Clippers trailed 16 points in the third quarter. They entered the fourth with a 15-point deficit.
Leonard always said succinctly, “We can’t do that.”
The Clippers also looked offensive for most of the game, a by-product of their decision to double down on having a point guard for the sake of having a point guard. As a pace-setting guard who can’t shoot, John Wall was not the right playmaker for the Clippers, who are built around a player in Leonard who prefers to play at a more leisurely pace. The Clippers traded Wall, only to replace him with a player of similar profile at Westbrook.
Westbrook’s play is less problematic than why the Clippers thought they needed him to begin with. Westbrook is a symptom. Caused by the failure of their perceived depth to amplify Leonard and George’s talents as they envisioned, Leonard’s dominant performances over the past few months failed to change the team’s fortunes.
The Clippers were cautiously optimistic that they found something during a furious comeback in which they surpassed the Grizzlies in the fourth quarter, 38-17.
“I mean, we just played harder,” said George. “We just brought it to another level. We played with some spice. I just felt tonight that we just had a winning mentality.
Playing this way has been an ambition for a season. What made Sunday’s game different from their previous 66 games?
“I think it’s 51 points,” George said, recalling the number of points the Clippers gave up in the third quarter. “Fifty-one points will do that to you.”
There’s something unsettling about a team that has to drop 51 points in a quarter to finally look in the mirror. Then again, what else should the Clippers build on? Nothing else has worked and they now have just 15 games to play in the regular season.