Kawhi Leonard owns the biggest hands in the game, and somehow his fingerprints are missing in this series and in most playoffs.
Paul George has every reason to start a Playoff Redemption Tour considering what happened to him last year ̵
The Clippers run 0-2 to the Jazz in the second round, just as they were for the Mavericks earlier, and much of this is due to another 0-2: Their stars, for the second straight series, follow the other star on the second team.
Donovan Mitchell follows Luka Doncic for being a problem for the Clippers, mashing them in Game 1 for the Jazz and then returning Thursday with a performance almost like the stars of Utah’s 117-11 victory. That in itself is something understandable. In his short time in the NBA, Mitchell has established himself as a player built for spring and summer when the lights go bright and his team demands a savior.
Same for Doncic; his playing style, competitive nature and toughness lend themselves to another level of basketball that motivates him to stand up straight along with the stakes this season.
But shouldn’t the Clippers get the same breast-lowering results from Leonard and George, who are supposed to be diversity creators, who are bound to take big shots in tense moments rather than Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris and … Patrick Beverley?
Kawhi and PG were not terrible Thursday; they were just not amazing. Neither Clipper was the best player on the floor. Neither had what could be described as an oh-wow moment. Neither was a factor in the last few minutes and certainly not the result, a defeat that put the Clippers in another hole to start a series.
Leonard was defiantly defended by Bojan Bogdanovic, who once deprived him of a revealing stop late in the fourth and for the most part kept the previous two-time final MVP quiet when it came. The numbers say 21 points for Leonard, but no one can remember anything screaming loudly. Plus, he had three turnovers and seemed out of sync at times.
For a player who manages the load through this compressed season, Kawhi has only played with a day’s rest between games since May 28th. Is it fair to ask if this “snowstorm” in a schedule catches him up?
At least he had games of 45 and 41 points the previous round. On the other hand, George is still waiting for a signature game and stretch. You could argue that Leonard is being forced to carry more than his share of a load that was designed to be treated equally between the two.
Instead, George had his second straight subpar shooter, and for the third straight playoffs, it struggles especially to find consistency from deep and connects at just 32% this post season.
Again: As a duo, Kawhi and George have not cratered; they just have not matched the intensity, influence and pop like Doncic in round one or Mitchell so far in round two.
Mitchell had at one point surpassed the Clipper duo 72-66 through the first six quarters of this series, and for the two games they have only nine points less. But the numbers do not tell the whole story; Mitchell has made plays, the kind that create teammates, turn the volume inside the home arena and knock the wind out of the other team.
Mitchell has been the most prolific goal scorer in the league over the last two seasons combined, and more remarkably finished strong on a sore ankle in Game 2. When not punishing the Clippers, his supportive role always seemed to respond with a timely 3-pointer , when LA gathered enough energy to tighten the score.
That’s what a leading playoff performer should do, yet in these Clippers playoffs, with the exception of a few solid Kawhi efforts, this performer has been on the second team through nine games so far.
The spotlight of suspicion will only get more intense for George for the rest of this series. If you remember, the flesh of his playoff problems can be traced back three years ago randomly to Utah when he and Oklahoma City lost in six games to the same Jazz franchise. The next year, Damian Lillard’s epic series-winning basket over George came along with his mocking farewell wave. Then last season, when George played poorly in the playoffs and came up empty in a game 7 against the Nuggets, the sound from the audience was directed at him deafeningly.
But basketball is fun sometimes. Stories and perceptions and reputation can turn suddenly if someone takes a sledgehammer for them. What Kawhi and George still have is the luxury of the times. There’s another game on the way to creating a completely different conversation.
These two could not prevent the Clippers from falling 0-2 again afterwards. To pull straight, they need to do for the Jazz what Mitchell does for the Clippers. It is certainly possible, and at this point do they have any other choice given the sudden sensitivity of the situation they are in?
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Shaun Powell has been covering the NBA for more than 25 years. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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