Every strong team Kawhi Leonard has been a part of has met his same personal criteria.
It is not a defensive classification.
It is not the ratio of attendance to turnover.
It is not quantifiable at all.
“It’s a feeling when you know you have a great team,” the Clippers star wing said Sunday. “It’s not always about (leading) to a championship, it’s just about you knowing that everyone is on the same page. It’s just a continuous movement. It is difficult to explain.
“Yes, there is something special. You have to feel it, and then you will know.”
Do these Clippers, who played so unevenly through the first half of the season and rebuilt the roster at the trade deadline just a month ago and have fought hard to win without Leonard, meet that criteria?
Inside the Clippers’ locker room Sunday night in Portland following a win over the Trail Blazers, a fifth win in their last six games to move within a half-game of fourth place in the Western Conference standings, there was a sense of cautious optimism. .
“I think we started to gel a little more, like I said, we just experimented with playing each other,” Leonard said before home games against eighth-place Oklahoma City (35-36) on Tuesday and Thursday. “You have new guys coming in, there are different colors that you’re seeing, different coaching voices, different schemes, it’s a totally different, different city.
“So I think once those guys got settled in and could see what we were doing, I think things started to change, but we still have to get better. It’s a lot of things, a lot of mistakes that we’re making sometimes, but we just have to clean that up a bit and see if we can keep making jumps.”
Just getting to 38-34 was a leap in and of itself.
After last month’s All-Star break, while working to integrate new additions in guards Eric Gordon, Bones Hyland and Russell Westbrook and center Mason Plumlee, the team felt it was just a few plays away from making a breakthrough at despite a five game losing streak. Although they came close, with two of the losses decided by one point, they also seemed a long way from coming close to their self-proclaimed championship potential.
During that losing streak, his offensive rating of 112.8 points per 100 possessions ranked 16th and his defensive rating (120.8) ranked 26th. 22nd. Winning the battle for possession was a constant struggle, ranking 29th in offensive rebounding percentage, 21st in defensive rebounding percentage, and 25th in percentage of possessions ending in loss (15.7%).
Since the March 5 comeback victory against Memphis that began their streak of five wins in six games, the improvements have been remarkable. The Clippers have increased their offensive rating by eight points per 100 possessions (120, for fourth place) while they are eight points better on defense (112.9, for seventh place).
His assists-to-turnover ratio has jumped to 1.94, to rank 16th, a change that has corresponded with the 13th-best turnover percentage (13.1%). And the rebound from him, well, it has rebounded. Where the Clippers ranked 29th in offensive rebounding percentage, they have since ranked third. Where they were grabbing 46% of available defensive rebounds, they have since grabbed 72.5%.
And yet, when asked what has changed, and what still needs to improve, the Clippers follow Leonard’s lead and point to sentiment.
“We have a really good spirit right now among our guys and they want to win,” said associate head coach Dan Craig, who won Sunday in relief of coach Tyronn Lue, who didn’t travel to Portland due to a non-COVID-related illness. .
“We went in and we hope to win, that’s really the key,” said Paul George. “We hope to play well. We know what we have to do and we know what it looks like when we are at our peak. We’re marked, we’re attacking guys if we’re blowing coverage, if we’re not where we need to be.
“I think we hold each other accountable because we know what it looks like when we’re succeeding. He gave us that responsibility to step up like that.”
The Clippers never trailed in Sunday’s win at Portland, and yet, losing a 15-point lead in less than a quarter to one of the league’s least-oriented teams since the All-Star break, The Clippers also offered new evidence as to why many within the locker room are encouraged, but dissatisfied, with his progress.
“Right now we’re getting better and we’re still figuring it out, but we’ve got to start showing a level of mastery to show what we can really do,” said Gordon, who defined mastery by gaining control of a game and keeping track.
“Offensively I’m not too, too worried about it,” he said, “but I think defensively that’s the main point.”