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2024 NBA Playoffs Takeaways: Kawhi Leonard returns, that may not be enough

NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers
NBA: Playoffs-Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Clippers

LOS ANGELES — Things move fast in the NBA playoffs, so to help you stay on top of things, from now through at least the end of the second round, we will have nightly takeaways from the postseason action.

Kawhi Leonard returns, that may not be enough

Luka Doncic vs. Kawhi Leonard.

The 4/5 matchup between the Clippers and Mavericks is more than a man-a-mano showdown, but part of the attraction was two top-10 players in the league when healthy facing off. Except the healthy part got in the way, with Leonard missing Game 1 due to inflammation in his right knee. The Clippers won comfortably without him.

Leonard was back for Game 2 — and so was Doncic. Luka put on a vintage performance with 32 points and nine assists, taking over the game in the fourth quarter and lifting Dallas to a 96-93 win in a game that Jason Kidd called ‘90s basketball. The series is now tied 1-1 and headed back to Dallas.

Doncic playing like this tipped the scales in Game 2 and Dallas could easily win three more games that look almost exactly like this. The Clippers played the better game — they had more offensive rebounds and fewer turnovers, they had more fast break points and more points in the paint, and they shot better at the rim — and none of it mattered because of Doncic and the Mavericks' defense. Led by Luka, Dallas shot 42.4% from 3 to the Clippers 26.7% — those six more made 3-pointers Dallas had were the difference.

Dallas can play defense like this every game, they did through March and April. Doncic can play like this every game, he is top-three in MVP voting for good reason.

The Clippers need Leonard to match that. James Harden can get hot for a night, as can Paul George, but Leonard is the offensive force of nature who gets to his spots and knocks down contested shots no matter what the defense does. Leonard is also an elite and physical defender.

Well, Leonard can do all that when healthy. Leonard was understandably rusty in his return, having not played a game in April and missing more than three weeks of action. He made a few defensive plays but looked rusty on offense, including going 0-of-5 from 3, and finished with 13 points.

If the Clippers are going to win this series, they will need a lot more out of Leonard and a lot more shot-making.

"We got pretty stagnant tonight in that fourth quarter," Leonard said of his team’s offensive struggles late (and he’s right, it was a lot of ‘your turn then my turn’ isolation). "Now I want to just be able to get a rhythm with the team, then get a win.”

"So offensively just being better, playing with more pace, getting into the paint a little bit more," Lue said of what he wants to see with the offense on Friday night in Game 3. "We missed a lot of shots but as far as what we did defensively, I take that every day of the week... To hold this team to 96 points, that's a really great defensive night. We just got to do a better job of scoring the basketball."

The Clippers do need to score more — and they need Leonard to help do that. Because Luka Doncic can keep playing like this all series long.

Phoenix is in trouble. It needs a point guard.

The playoffs have a way of taking a team’s greatest weakness and putting a spotlight on it.

Two things have been clear watching Phoenix drop the first two games of its series against Minnesota: They are in serious trouble in this series, and they need a traditional, floor-general point guard.

Let’s not take anything away from Minnesota, which is living up to its “best defense in the NBA” ranking from this season. The Timberwolves' athleticism and length are an issue for the Suns' scorers, and Phoenix just looks slow — there is always a Timberwolves defender in front of them.

Still, considering their star power and massive payroll, one would think the Suns should be better than this. Except this is all about owner Mat Ishbia’s push for a third star without focusing on roster building or depth — they have three elite isolation scorers, but Devin Booker and Bradley Beal are not traditional point guards and are not handling Minnesota’s pressure well.

Phoenix needs someone like the Timberwolves’ Mike Conley — a point guard who settles his team down, organizes the offense, gets guys the ball where they want it to attack mismatches, and can scorer a little when needed. The Suns lack that depth, and now may be without sharpshooter Grayson Allen for a stretch as he rolled his ankle in Game 2.

Getting that point guard isn’t that easy because Phoenix is a second-apron team — they have a payroll on the books for next season of $205.9 million for just 11 players, that’s $34 million into the tax. Being in the second apron means Suns don’t have a mid-level exception to use, they can’t take back more money in a trade and they can’t aggregate salaries, all they can do is trade 1-for-1. And before you ask, Bradley Beal has a no-trade clause (no way they trade Devin Booker or Kevin Durant). If they trade Jusuf Nurkic or Grayson Allen or whoever for a point guard, are they really getting better or just creating a hole somewhere else? There is no easy answer here.

The vibes around the Suns have been off all season — the Suns are great frontrunners, but in the face of adversity they struggle. And they are facing a lot of adversity right now.

Pascal Siakam thriving against shorthanded Bucks

It's just two games, but Pascal Siakam leads all scorers in the playoffs averaging 36.5 points per game — with Giannis Antetokounmpo out, the Bucks don't have anyone close to being able to match up with him athletically. They have tried Brook Lopez, but Siakam is far too quick.

Siakam led the Bucks to a 125-108 win on Tuesday to even the series and — as long as Antetokounmpo remains out — there’s no reason he can’t keep doing this and the Pacers can’t keep winning. Indiana is out and running against the Bucks and the one guy who can change the tide of this series is out with a strained calf (and Milwaukee can’t rush him back, not only could he re-aggravate the calf, but weak calf muscles can lead to Achilles issues that would be far, far more serious).

Tyrese Haliburton still is not his pre-injury self but has his moments averaging 10.5 points and 10 assists a game, but Myles Turner has stepped up with 19.5 points a game. Damian Lillard is going nuts in the first half of games, but Indiana and its pace was a bad matchup for the Bucks with the Greek Freak, and without him it could get ugly.

This series is tied 1-1 and if Indiana can hold serve at home and take a 3-1 lead, the Bucks will be staring in the face of some very hard offseason questions (they may be no matter what happens in this series).