Kawhi Leonard-Paul George pairing pays dividends for Clippers
When Nicolas Batum mentioned to Clippers teammates last week that he believed they were about to start a five-game winning streak, his reasoning for choosing such a precise number was simple to deduce.
The sixth game in that stretch? It was scheduled to land Sunday, the very next night after Game No. 5. And as anyone who has watched the NBA this season knows, the Clippers have again been a leading example of the increasingly leaguewide strategy of holding out contributors on one night of back-to-back games, valuing rest ahead of the postseason over reps in the regular season.
The result Sunday was as predictable as Batum imagined: While playing several players normally out of coach Tyronn Lue’s rotation during the second half — and with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Reggie Jackson sidelined for precautionary reasons, and Marcus Morris Sr. and John Wall unavailable because of injuries — the Clippers trailed by as many as 40 before seeing their five-game winning streak end in a 122-99 loss in Cleveland.
For a team that had begun to find its stride during the streak that preceded Sunday’s "schedule loss," however, the game marked an important schedule milestone: The Clippers aren’t scheduled to play on consecutive days again until March 2-3.
It creates a 12-game window — Game 12 is the first night of that back-to-back set — in which Leonard and George should be available, barring injury, to play every night as the Clippers attempt to make up ground in the Western Conference standings and build chemistry.
All but one of those dozen games are against teams that entered Monday with winning records — and potential playoff teams. While the Clippers are 19-9 against teams that had losing records the day of their matchup, they are only 9-15 against opponents .500 or better. Beating good teams has been a missing element on the Clippers’ credentials, and they know it, with George saying last week that the team’s current six-game road trip would be a “good test” because of the caliber of opponents.
Left on the road trip: visits to 23-26 Chicago, 33-17 Milwaukee, 27-24 New York and 30-19 Brooklyn.
“We’ll be tested against six playoff teams,” George said of the trip, which began with a 120-113 win in Atlanta on Saturday. “We've just got to accept the challenge.”
The roster that begins that 12-game stretch likely won't look the same as the one that ends it. The Clippers have made a trade before the deadline — Feb. 9 this season — each of the last five years and have been linked to point guards such as Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley. Through all the potentially moving parts, the Clippers seem more prepared for that challenge than at any point this season because of the Leonard-George pairing.
George averaged 24.4 points, 6.6 assists, 5.8 rebounds and more than a steal while shooting 55% overall and nearly 44% on three-pointers during the winning streak. For his part, Leonard averaged 30 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and another steal while shooting 63%, including 48% on three-pointers. Both were nominees to be the conference’s most recent player of the week.
During the streak that began Jan. 20 and ran through Saturday’s win in Atlanta, the Clippers outscored opponents by 46 points in George and Leonard’s 136 minutes together, while shooting 59% from the field overall and nearly 48% on three-pointers. Among 147 pairs of teammates who had logged at least 100 minutes together during that weeklong period, the George and Leonard pairing registered the second-highest field goal percentage — behind that of George and center Ivica Zubac at 60%.
The Clippers’ championship hopes this season were built on the team’s belief that George and Leonard could eventually look as dominant together as they had during the 2021 postseason, right as Leonard suffered a season-ending knee injury, when each produced 30-point games and stranglehold defense against Utah. Through fits and starts this season, that pairing has again resembled that vintage.
Lue first noticed Leonard had begun to look like his All-NBA self again during a Dec. 12 win against Boston, but it has been a slow build as he began to gradually trust his surgically repaired knee and display a certain measure of explosiveness that team officials were waiting would come back.
After watching Leonard return from a quad injury on his own timetable in Toronto in 2019 and gradually build his fitness and sharpen his efficiency over the course of that championship season, his former Raptors and current Clippers teammate Norman Powell said Leonard’s progression is nothing new to him.
“The thing about Kawhi is that he's going to do the best for him, work on his game every single day and he's going to play basketball the right way,” Powell said last week. “I think that's what people were frustrated with when he was coming back. He was making the simple play. He wasn't being as aggressive until he got the feel of the game, the rhythm of the game and how he wanted to play. Now you see his body and his legs coming together, kind of like midseason form coming into form, shaping up.”
Powell added, “I think the media and fans have their own opinions of how somebody should go about their injuries and things like that. But us as players, we want to be out there, we want to play.
“We put a lot of time into our game and Kawhi is the same way. Kawhi is always trying to figure out how he can get better. He wants to be out there and help this team win because that’s what's most important.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.