The clock ticked away as the Los Angeles Clippers inched closer either to elimination or survival. Yet, Kawhi Leonard stood calmly while holding the ball and ultimately dictating the Clippers’ fortunes.
Not only did Leonard appear comfortable with the pressure of having the ball in his hands, he also appeared comfortable with who defended him. Leonard wanted to match up with Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic. So after receiving his wish, Leonard jab-stepped and then drilled a step-back 3-pointer over an off-balanced Doncic.
The play captured how Leonard led the Clippers to a 104-97 Game 6 win over the Mavericks on Friday to tie the first-round series at 3-3 and force a decisive Game 7 on Sunday at Staples Center. Leonard tied his playoff career high with 45 points, while shooting 18-of-25 from the field and 5-of-9 from 3-point range. And Leonard’s 27-footer over Doncic proved to be the dagger shot, which gave the Clippers a 95-88 cushion with 2:20 left.
“He destroyed us. He had a hell of a game,” Doncic said. “That’s what he does.”
That’s not all that Leonard does, though. Doncic would know.
Leonard became the sixth player in NBA history during the shot clock era to score at least 45 points on 72% shooting in a playoff game. He did so while primarily guarding Doncic, whose 29 points required plenty of effort from the field (11-of-24) and from deep (2-of-9).
“You saw one of the best, if not the best, two-way players at his best,” Clippers forward Paul George said. “It was fun to watch.”
It sure was.
Leonard scored 42 of the Clippers’ final 68 points. During that stretch, Leonard shot efficiently from the field (17-of-22), from deep (5-of-8) and from the free-throw line (3-of-3). Meanwhile, Doncic’s efficiency fluctuated. After scoring 11 first-quarter points on 4-of-8 shooting, Doncic became less effective in the second (four points on 1-of-3) and third (two points on 1-of-5 shooting). Doncic rebounded in the fourth quarter (12 points on 5-of-8 shooting), but Leonard made up for that with 12 points of his own while making all five of his attempts.
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“Great players perform in big moments,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “He took on the challenge with guarding Luka the whole game, and I thought the coverages were great. That shows you who Kawhi Leonard is.”
It also shows you who Leonard is when he resisted bragging about his own play.
“Luka still played a pretty good game,” Leonard said. “He’s a very dominant player and very skilled. He plays at his own pace. All I can do is stay in front of him as much as possible, contest his shots and try not to put him to the line.”
Leonard fulfilled that job description well. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Leonard has held Doncic to 22 points on 9-of-24 from the field (37.5%) and 4-of-13 from 3-point range (30.8%) in the series.
Yet, Lue resisted assigning Leonard on Doncic too much in earlier games to resist foul trouble and ease his workload so that it does not compromise his scoring. But with the Clippers’ constant trapping only having mixed success, Lue said that Leonard asked to defend the Mavs star in Game 6.
“I want to attack everybody on the floor no matter who’s in front of me,” Leonard said. “Whoever the matchup is. I can’t have an indecisive mind out there. If I feel like I have an angle and they’re giving me something, then I attack it.”
How things changed so dramatically for Leonard between Games 5 and 6.
With Doncic feeling healthier from neck and shoulder injuries, he had 42 points in Game 5 while shooting 17-of-37 from the field and 6-of-12 from 3-point range. Meanwhile, Leonard had only 20 points while shooting 7-of-19 from the field and 1-of-7 from deep. He also air-balled a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left.
That did not rattle Leonard. Nor did Leonard’s 14-point performance on 6-of-22 shooting in the Clippers’ Game 7 elimination loss to Denver in last year’s postseason after holding a 3-1 series lead. After all, he already has won two NBA championships. He also posted 45 points in Game 1 of the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia. He has become used to high-stakes moments.
“You definitely don’t want to go home. That’s something that I had — always wanting to win the game and trying to exert my will on the floor,” Leonard said. “My teammates had the same mentality. That’s what I try to instill with them to make sure we keep fighting and don’t give up. You never know what can happen. Just have faith and go out and have fun.”
When the Clippers struggled stopping the Mavericks’ game-long runs with periodic shooting slumps and sloppy play, Lue observed that Leonard often calmed his teammates down on the court and in the huddles. George, Patrick Beverley and Rajon Rondo followed suit.
So during Leonard’s scoring outburst, George relayed telling him, “collectively we’re going to give you something; just keep going.” George eventually ended with 20 points and 13 rebounds. Reggie Jackson added 25 points. But most of the action centered on Leonard, who enjoyed making a dagger shot over Doncic after spending lots of the night stopping him from doing the same.
“Trusting my teammates and trusting in myself,” Leonard said. “As the game went on, I got to some spots and make some shots. My teammates found me. I just tried to go with the rhythm and stay in with the rhythm and mindset that I had. I didn’t want to go home. I kept that momentum and faith all night.”