After a Game 7 win, the head coach or players all talk about a look the team has — a certain look that lets everyone know they’ll be ready for the moment.
LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said his team looked like it was locked in during a walk-through before Sunday’s 126-111 win to close out their Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks in front of 7,342 fans at Staples Center.
In Leonard’s case, however, the look never changes. He might show a little fire after a big dunk. He might show a little disappointment after missing a game-tying 3-pointer, like at the end of the Clippers’ Game 5 loss to the Mavs.
He might even look mortal at times, tending to the myriad injuries he has dealt with in recent years.
But Leonard has earned his reputation as one of the NBA’s elite playoff performers — and earned his two NBA Finals MVP trophies — because of the poise with which he handles games and moments like this.
Leonard finished with 28 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals on Sunday. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Leonard is the fourth player in NBA history to score 200 or more points on at least 60% shooting from the field in a playoff series.
He also was the Clippers’ most effective defender on Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic, holding him to 0.80 points per play as his primary defender in this series. That’s easily the fewest for any Clippers defender against Doncic — and it takes a tremendous amount of energy. But the Clippers had no choice but to put Leonard in that role once they were facing elimination.
That is because Doncic is now one of three players to lose back-to-back playoffs despite averaging 30 points, five boards and five assists in both series. Tracy McGrady (2001-02) and Michael Jordan (1986-87) are the only others to suffer defeat despite such massive performances.
“Oh, man, you know, he did everything,” Leonard said of Doncic. “Shooting it very efficiently from 3 for sure off the dribble shots. You know, just doing it all for his team. You know he’s a great player, and you’ll see him for many years to come. He plays at his own pace, and he makes it look easy out there.”
George echoed the sentiments.
“S—, he was a star last matchup too,” he said of Doncic. “He played off the charts last year in the playoffs. And to be honest, at a young age like that, you knew he could get better — knew there was room for improvement. Of course. He was even more awesome. He plays with so much confidence. His game is beyond his age. He can pick up and read almost any defense.”
Lue said after Game 6 that the Clippers staff decided to move Leonard onto Doncic, and Leonard embraced the challenge.
But it’s Leonard’s mental toughness that helped the Clippers get through a series that seemed as mentally and emotionally exhausting as it was physically draining.
Kawhi Leonard drops 28 points and grabs 10 rebounds to propel the Clippers to a second-round matchup vs. the Jazz.
Athletes will tell you there’s a muscle memory to performing under pressure. But Leonard’s approach is different. He doesn’t think back on any of his previous playoff performances before big games like Sunday’s Game 7 or draw confidence from the moments and games he has delivered in the past. Each game, he said, is its own challenge.
“I mean, it’s like that for me,” Leonard said. “I don’t know how other players think, but just for me, it’s about the situation that’s in front of you. Just because you played great in, whatever, nine Game 7s, doesn’t mean you play great in game 10 and vice versa. It’s all about the moment.
“Sometimes when you’re overconfident, you play bad, and sometimes when you’re down on yourself, you play good. For me, it’s about focusing on that moment, having fun and playing hard. That’s it. It’s a game of basketball.”
There’s a lesson in there about controlling the moment, not letting it overwhelm him, that explains Leonard’s unique wiring and why it has led to so much success in the biggest moments over the years.
It’s why signing Leonard was such a landmark achievement for the Clippers two summers ago. Winning in the playoffs isn’t just about talent; it’s about having the mental toughness to win a game or a series like this.
The Clippers didn’t just pull out a seven-game series against a budding superstar whose game looks ready to take over the league. They pulled out a seven-game series in which they lost the first three games at home, faced withering criticism and had to confront all their demons from last season’s playoff meltdown.
“I’m not thinking about last year,” Leonard said. “I’m thinking about what we are doing today and what the next step is tomorrow. I’m glad that we showed character and we showed poise going down 2-0 going on the road, and that Game 3, that meant a lot to me this season. Obviously, it got us to this next round, but it’s all about this year.”
The Clippers won this series because they didn’t panic. Lue decided to go small after the first two losses at home and stuck with that alignment despite the Mavericks going extra tall by inserting 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic to the starting lineup in Game 5. Dallas won that game, putting a tremendous amount of pressure on Lue to counter.
Instead, the Clippers coach stuck with the small lineup, trusting in his players the work they’d put in all year. Los Angeles had been the best 3-point shooting team in the league this season (41%) but had shot just 35% from behind the arc (74-for-209) in the first six games.
Lue also knew when to make changes. Rajon Rondo helped the Clippers win Games 3 and 4 and was +41 heading into Game 5. But when Dallas adjusted the way it was defending Rondo, Lue swapped in young point guard Terance Mann — who responded with 13 points in Game 7 — and rode with starter Reggie Jackson, whose hot hand (25 points in Game 6, 15 points in Game 7) helped the Clippers win the final two games.
“They definitely got us war-ready. It’s a great team we played. Unbelievable superstar in Luka. They pushed us,” George said of the Mavs. “But you know, we stuck in there. We played for one another. We played hard, and you know, we continue on our season. Onto the next.”
There was plenty that went wrong in Los Angeles’ three losses that can go wrong again. The Clippers coaches and players would be the first to tell you they haven’t done anything yet.
But with Leonard back destroying at both ends of the court, as Doncic so eloquently put it after Leonard’s sublime Game 6 performance on Friday night, the Clippers have that look again.