Eyes on the rim, feet on the line, Kawhi Leonard was preparing to shoot a free throw for the Clippers on Wednesday night against Toronto when a cry from Section 112 went up inside Crypto.com Arena.
“Thanks for the banner!” shouted a line of fans in Toronto jerseys.
In an era where superstars don’t stick around long, Leonard’s departure from Toronto, just weeks after claiming the 2019 NBA championship, for Los Angeles and the Clippers can seem like an eternity in the NBA. But that career, and the imprint he left behind, are still seen today.
Before Clippers win 108-100Toronto coach Nick Nurse recalled Leonard’s lasting mark “raising a lot of people’s confidence and people’s game” during his one season with the Raptors. Leonard’s ability to make minute defensive adjustments in the span of a timeout or free throw “was amazing,” Nurse said. And he credited Leonard for developing Toronto’s Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet into their own stars.
“Kawhi was a 9 to 5 guy, maybe 8:30 to 4:30 every day. Pascal is the same,” Nurse said. “He is the first guy in the gym. Him and Freddy, every morning. They learned a lot from the work day. Not just the shoot, the whole day of shoot work, eating, caring, lifting, stretching, hot tub, hot tub, all of that. And Kawhi did all of that without flinching.”
This is the version of Leonard the Clippers have seen since Jan. 8, a dominating streak two months in the making, a span in which Leonard is shooting 48% on 3-pointers, 51% on 3-pointers . , and 59% shooting within 10 feet.
In another push toward the Clippers’ playoff goals, Leonard nailed the win over Toronto with five dunks, each one more powerful than the last, his second-half smash into the chest of Raptors center Jakob Poeltl before his right arm hit the ball. on the head of the great man.
“Even when we lost those games we had confidence in ourselves,” Leonard said of the team’s recent five-game losing streak. And I’m on the ground. Every time I play, I feel like we can win a basketball game.”
Leonard scored 24 points, adding 12 rebounds.
“This last run that he’s been in since January has been incredible, one of the highest levels I’ve ever seen, and that’s how we need him to play to be successful every night,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “…That definitely gives us confidence on both sides of the ball that he can be elite.”
Breaking free of a potential position in a play-in tournament will require more players to inspire similar levels of confidence. The Clippers (35-33) remain a work in progress, coming off a turnover-filled first half with a snarling defense in the third quarter, allowing 25 points, less than half the 51 allowed in the third quarter. Sunday against Memphis. Paul George scored 23 points and Lue credited him for setting the strong defensive example the team had asked for over two days of practice.
“All of our veterans have stepped up,” Lue said, adding: “This should be the model.”
With 14 dunks, one of the NBA’s oldest rosters looked agile attacking the inside of Toronto’s defense. Ivica Zubac’s rim protection was indispensable. Terance Mann’s role as closer, scoring 14 points in 28 minutes, was invaluable as Lue showed confidence to finish the game without a “traditional point guard” despite pressure from Toronto. Before Russell Westbrook made a final half with 17 minutes to go, the small contributions from him in setting up screens that turned into points were notable, indicators of the role he is willing to play in his new team.
But equally notable was watching Toronto grab seven of its 15 offensive rebounds in the fourth quarter and go on an 11-1 run in the process. A once comfortable 15-point Clippers lead with five minutes remaining dwindled to four with 54 seconds left. The rocky finish reflected their troubled start, a lack of consistency that will remain their toughest challenge to overcome in the last 14 games of this season.
Leonard opened the game, tricking Toronto’s OG Anunoby into the air at the three-point line before beating Siakam’s help defense to the rim for a dunk. It was one of the rare first-quarter possessions that ended in a Clippers shot.
After four turnovers in less than five minutes, including two by Westbrook, Lue replaced his starting shooting guard with Eric Gordon. But just 19 seconds later, Leonard threw a pass intercepted by Anunoby. A minute after that, Lue took his second timeout of the quarter after Siakam stole a pass thrown by Gordon.
The turnovers had the effect of distilling a game of complex outline and execution into a simple math problem. The Clippers took 25 fewer shots. But as badly as the Clippers held on to the ball, the Raptors showed
just as ineffective on shooting, just 39% to go into halftime tied. They finished 38% for the game. This time, the Clippers learned the lesson of the third quarter, their defense held back. That was new.
What it wasn’t, for both the Clippers and the Raptors, was another great night from Leonard.