Kawhi Leonard’s NBA career is remembered for the big moments — the pair of Finals most valuable player awards and NBA titles, the dramatic shot in Toronto Raptors history and the Game 6 in Dallas that saved a Clippers postseason appearing to careen into chaos.
Yet it was the many small things that stood out in his return Thursday, after missing three weeks and 12 consecutive games because of stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee, to point guard Reggie Jackson. The way Leonard kept the ball moving, stayed calm amid a comeback win over Detroit and got his teammates in better positions. In a game decided by five points, the Clippers outscored the Pistons by 26 with Leonard on the floor. In contrast, the teammate with the next-highest plus-minus posted a plus-15.
“When you got him on your team you know you gotta elevate your game,” Jackson said. “The whole team’s elevating. You dream bigger, better dreams, you really feel like you got a shot.”
It marked the passage of a significant milestone, the team now beginning the long-awaited business of setting their likely rotations and building chemistry in earnest. Yet afterward several made clear that his presence alone, however, could not mask what has held the Clippers back in going 9-7 against one of the NBA’s easiest schedules. Unless they are prepared to fix “everything,” in Leonard’s own assessment, the championship dreams described by Jackson could still fail to become reality — the franchise’s big moment potentially spoiled by small details.
Leonard shut down a question about his rehabilitation process quicker than he had a Marvin Bagley III turnaround jumper, describing it as “just rehabbing.”
“I’m not gonna explain it cause I’m not a doctor,” he said, looking around a room of reporters, “and nobody in here is one.”
Yet it doesn’t take an advanced degree to diagnose what has ailed the Clippers, Leonard or not.
Eighteen turnovers again hamstrung the Clippers on Thursday. Leonard wants crisper execution on defensive rotations and focus offensively out of timeouts, when the Clippers are scoring only at a league-average rate despite coach Tyronn Lue’s renown as an out-of-timeout play-caller. Lue wants more three-pointers. The rotation is still a logjam, with Robert Covington healthy but out of the lineup for the third time in his last five games. The void of size at the backup center position has factored into one of the league’s worst offensive rebounding units.
“I feel like we’re behind,” Leonard said, “and we need to start focusing up.”
There is no better place to start than the start. The Clippers trailed by 15 during the first quarter Tuesday in Dallas, and 12 in the opening 12 minutes Thursday against Detroit.
“It’s always gonna come down to identity and that goes with how we start the game,” said wing Paul George. “We’re getting off to terrible starts and I think it’s carrying over throughout the game.”
There is hope that reinserting Leonard back into the starting lineup can change that — the bottom fell out only after Leonard had checked out after nearly six minutes, with the Clippers up one — in part by helping solve another persistent offensive issue that has been symptomatic of an offense yet to click.
Two seasons ago, Lue’s first in charge, the Clippers made 46.5% of their corner three-pointers, the shot some regard as the highest-value attempt in the game, because of extra point awarded to a look that is easier relative to other three-pointers given its shorter distance. With George and Leonard collapsing defenses on their drives to the paint teammates were gifted with wide-open looks, and sank them at a stunning rate that might be an outlier, given the limited attendance — and thus, limited distractions — present for much of the pandemic-altered season.
Yet many of the shooters launching that season returned last season, when the Clippers shot 41.7% from the corner, and remain on the roster now, when the Clippers have shot 33% from the corner.
With Leonard unavailable while missing 13 of the team’s first 15 games, combined with a trend that has frustrated Lue of taking the first, easiest shot instead of moving the ball. They rank near the league’s bottom in passing and drives, a combination that is anathema to Lue’s drive-and-kick scheme — the shot quality has declined to fifth worst, according to the advanced statistics site Cleaning The Glass, which gauges its rating on shot locations.
“We gotta attack better, we gotta screen better, we gotta be more aggressive,” George said. “We gotta shoot the open ones. I think a lot of it is we’re passing up opportunities sometimes. You look at every opportunity that we can to get a three, I think we’re kind of falling short of that. To be honest, we could do a little bit of everything better. I think the threes that we have taken, kind of have been some tough ones.”
The weeks-long absence of an All-NBA scorer in Leonard and new roles for virtually everyone else on the roster has meant the “rhythm is different, the passing is different, the players are different because two years ago we literally had two guys who could create open shots, when you have PG and Kawhi,” said forward Nicolas Batum. Outside factors are involved, too, with Batum linking his 31% shooting from three-point range through 14 games to feeling out of rhythm after not playing internationally with France during the offseason — the first time the 33-year-old opted out of national team duty in years, a choice he expected could lead to a slower start, but made with the hope of staying fresher.
Batum, after making all seven of his three-pointers against Dallas, feels as though he has his rhythm back. The question is how quickly the Clippers feel they can say the same now that Leonard is back, even as the superstar acknowledged his injury as a two-year recovery process that “is still gonna be a long journey.”
“We got to be able to drive closeouts when teams are over-helping, just make a simple flow pass, and now we create an advantage,” Lue said. “We can put the ball on the floor and make a play for somebody else. And so those are things that we got to get better at. We got a lot of talent. We got a lot of guys that can score the basketball. But we got to put it together where the individual talent becomes a team talent.”