Hernández: Despite Game 2 loss, Clippers clearly need Kawhi Leonard

Their offense looked disjointed.

Doesn’t matter.

The Clippers had to play Kawhi Leonard.

Their first-round playoff series is now level at one game apiece, as the Dallas Mavericks stole a 96-93 victory at Crypto.com Arena on Tuesday night.

Doesn’t matter.

The Clippers had to play Kawhi Leonard.

Because the Clippers aren’t looking to just win this series. They’re looking to win a championship, and they’re not doing that without their best player, who hadn’t played in more than three weeks because of a swollen right knee.

Whether it was on Tuesday night, or in the upcoming two games in Dallas, or sometime beyond that, Leonard was going to have to be reintegrated into the team.

This was never going to be a simple process.

To facilitate the return of the version of Leonard who scores 30 points a game, the Clippers will have to endure a period in which they have the version of Leonard who was limited to 15 points and missed all five of his three-point attempts in their Game 2 defeat. They will have to build him back up while continuing to win games, well aware that the first objective could compromise the second.

Leonard’s last game was on March 31, and the Clippers had learned to win without him. When Leonard went down, they won four of their next five games before resting their key players in their last three regular-season contests. They beat the Mavericks in Game 1 of this series 109-97.

Leonard’s sudden return shocked the Clippers’ system. The team’s offensive rhythm vanished. The Clippers made only 36.8% of their shots on Tuesday night, their lowest percentage of the season. They made only eight of 30 threes.

Their inability to make shots permitted the Mavericks to win their first game this season in which they scored fewer than 100 points. They were previously 0-8.


“We got pretty stagnant tonight,” said Leonard, who was seven of 17 from the field.

James Harden and Paul George scored 22 points each but looked as if they were deferring to Leonard, only this version of Leonard wasn’t the same version of Leonard they played alongside for the majority of the season.

Leonard didn’t look as if he had his legs under him. By the middle of the third quarter, he looked completely gassed.

Which was understandable.

Asked about where he was from a conditioning standpoint, Leonard replied, “It’s my first game in like 20-something days, but I don’t know. I’m not measuring it.”

He acknowledged that he hadn’t done much in the last few weeks.

“I’ve just been rehabbing, trying to get back on the floor,” he said.

If Leonard was limited in what he could do, how did he know he was ready to play?

“Just being able to get on the floor and shoot consistent days, able to run,” he said. “The last few weeks, I haven’t been on the floor, so last couple days, it felt great and was able to play tonight.”

Before the game, coach Tyronn Lue said Leonard had “checked every box” to ensure a safe return.

What about contact?

“Tonight,” Lue replied.

The minimal buildup was reflected by how Leonard played in the first half, as he had just four points on two-of-six shooting at the break.

The Clippers were down at the break 45-41.

If there is optimism that Leonard can rediscover his form before the Clippers are eliminated — “We’ll be able to make it work,” Lue said — his eight-point, three-rebound third quarter is the primary reason.

Leonard intercepted a pass and threw down a dunk. He powered his way toward the basket and made a floater. He pulled down an offensive rebound and scored. He sank a jumper from the free-throw line.

“I thought in the second half, in that third quarter, he really got active,” Lue said. “Couple of offensive rebounds, putbacks to kind of get him going. As far as getting the rhythm, as far as his plays and getting his shots and things like that, that’s going to come.”

The Clippers finished the third quarter with a 66-65 lead and led by as many as six points in the fourth. There were moments when they looked like a championship team.

How they actually become a championship team is the question. Leonard thinks he has the answer.

“We gotta be better as a unit overall and it starts with me,” he said.

The Clippers have experience with this over Leonard’s five years with them, both with missing him for extended periods and with welcoming him back. Only now, the stakes are higher, as their championship window feels as if it’s closing.

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