Kawhi Leonard’s first season as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers has wrapped up in stunning fashion, falling to the Denver Nuggets in Game 7 of the second-round series. The championship-or-bust season comes to an end before the reigning NBA Finals MVP has a chance to return to the Finals.
When Leonard signed with the Clippers in July 2019, the expectations were always to win championships on a team that hadn’t ever made an appearance in the conference finals. Although a big task, LA had all the tools and pieces to compete for a title. They even traded for additional pieces midseason. In the end, it wasn’t enough.
Michael Malone, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray led the Nuggets past another 3-1 deficit, this time agains one of the title favorites. Throughout the series, Denver was able to overcome double-digit deficit after double-digit deficit and win the series.
The Clippers wasted a 36-point, nine-rebound performance from Leonard in Game 5, a game in which Paul George added 26 points. They wasted a Game 6 where Leonard scored 25 and George scored 33. Game 7s usually defy logic, and a bad shooting night will really doom you. Unfortunately for the Clippers, both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George struggled in Game 7, combining to shoot just 10-of-38 from the field, including 0-of-11 shooting in the fourth quarter.
So, what’s next for Leonard and the Clippers?
“Just got to build,” Kawhi Leonard put out plainly after the game. “Build some chemistry and we’ve got to get smarter. We were close, Denver is great. We shot ourselves in the foot the last three games, last two games were pretty much mirrored. Us coming in and not able to score the ball, very hard in the fourth quarter. Tonight was a mirror of it. Those are the things that you got to learn and grow from. Denver did an amazing job, their coach did a great job when this team is playing us a certain way, trying to get the ball out of my hands or packing the paint, we got to know what to do. We can’t panic if we are not making shots, or I am not making shots. We’ve got some things we’ve got to get smarter at. Even being up double digits in the second half. Just gotta be smart.”
“Get smarter” was definitely the theme of Leonard’s postgame press conference. It’s clear after watching the series that while the Clippers had the better basketball players on paper, the Nuggets were far and away the better team. Denver won its third Game 7 in four tries over the last two postseasons with the better team, the better system, and the better belief in themselves.
“We just couldn’t make shots,” Kawhi Leonard said. “Felt like we got some good looks — that’s when it comes to the team chemistry, knowing what we should run to get the ball in spots, or just if someone’s getting doubled or they’re packing the paint, try to make other guys make shots and we gotta know what exact spots we need to be, and you know, just gotta carry over and get smarter as a team. Get smarter. Basketball IQ got to get better.”
Kawhi Leonard – “We just couldn’t make shots. I feel like we got some good looks… We gotta know what exact spots we need to be in. Just gotta carry over and get smarter as a team. Gotta get smarter. Basketball IQ’s gotta get better.”#Clippers pic.twitter.com/0glNBfXmm2
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) September 16, 2020
Were expectations for this Clippers team too high?
“I am not going to say that, but like I was just saying, just being smarter,” Kawhi Leonard responded. “Just knowing us being able to know what to do in what situations when guys are playing us certain ways and seeing how we can get some execution down the stretch, guys knowing exactly where they need to be, in crunch time our situation when you can’t put the ball in the hole, those are big things that championship teams have. They have a chemistry to probably get out of the hole and they know exactly what to do when teams throw different scenarios at you.”
The Clippers came into the NBA bubble following a four-month hiatus like everyone else: hoping their hiatus workouts were enough to keep guys in shape and ready for the season. There was so much uncertainty in terms of if and when the league would return, and a mid-bubble boycott by the Milwaukee Bucks almost threatened the end of their season.
“It’s been shocking, you know. Like you said, the pandemic, a legend passing away from a crazy accident and us coming here to Lake Buena Vista to play these games. It’s been hectic, but I’m happy we got to play basketball again. It probably kept a lot of us upbeat.”
Ultimately, this Clippers team, despite only playing 11 regular-season games together at full strength before the playoffs began, was not good enough collectively to beat a connected Nuggets team and advance to the Western Conference Finals. They carried themselves throughout the year as a team that was the prohibitive favorite for the NBA championship.
Instead, they were a group led by a two-time NBA Finals MVP, a superstar who had a tendency to disappear in big moments, and two Sixth Men of the Year who, while great offensively throughout the regular season, were absolute liabilities defensively in the postseason.
This offseason will not be fun for the Clippers by any stretch. They’re looking at a four-month layoff with the season’s start date, although still unclear, expected to be sometime in early 2021. Kawhi Leonard will enter the second year of a three-year deal, the third of which is a player option.
In his first season with the Clippers, Kawhi Leonard averaged 27.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.8 steals per game on 47.0 percent shooting from the field. In the playoffs, Leonard averaged 28.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 2.3 steals on 48.9 percent shooting from the field.