These Flashes of Paul George-Kawhi Leonard Brilliance Should Scare the NBA

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 21, 2019

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: Kawhi Leonard #2, and Paul George #13 of the LA Clippers react to a play against the Boston Celtics on November 20, 2019 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

If one of the markers of great showmanship is to always leave the audience wanting more, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George succeeded in their debut performance.

Playing together for the first time, the Los Angeles Clippers' superstar duo only occasionally hinted at what they might accomplish with the benefit of more shared court time. There were a few flashes of synergy between them during L.A.'s 107-104 overtime win against the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, but they mostly fell by the wayside as an initially sloppy start gave way to a competitively sublime finish, fueled mostly by role players trading haymakers.

Leonard was just 7-of-20 from the field for 17 points. He turned it over five times and failed to get to the foul line. George was better, providing 25 points, eight assists and five boards, but he had a matching five giveaways.

About those flashes, though.

The first bucket of the game was the result of George finding a rolling Ivica Zubac, who flipped the ball to an open Leonard for a three after the defense collapsed. George, who had five assists during a fourth-quarter run that got L.A. back into the game, is an elite pick-and-roll ball-handler who ranked in the 92nd percentile on such plays last year.

If the Clippers want to preserve Leonard, who played his first game after missing three straight with left knee soreness, they can comfortably put the ball in George's hands, set a pick for him and allow Leonard to feast on open looks.

L.A.'s second basket was a George three, assisted by Leonard, who quickly swung the ball after Boston sent two defenders at him on the perimeter. Leonard's dominance as an isolation scorer prompted repeated doubles from the Celtics, which freed up teammates—George included.

That pair of treys, generated by George's passing and Leonard's one-on-one game, provided a glimpse of the no-win scenarios those two present to opposing defenses. It's also telling that the two-play sequence had a bit of a "my turn, your turn" vibe.

Spun more positively, the Clippers' stars forced the Celtics to pick their poison.

George and Leonard are both elite spot-up shooters who drilled 40.0 percent and 40.8 percent of their catch-and-shoot threes last year, respectively. They retain major value off the ball and provide elite defense across several positions. So even if the offensive whole doesn't wind up being more than the sum of its parts, the partnership is going to work out just fine.

For one thing, the Clips' two best players are mostly interchangeable. If one is having a hot shooting night, or the other has an especially strong facilitation feel going, there's no issue tweaking roles to suit the moment.

Wednesday's game suggested we're not going to see George and Leonard make basketball art. The Clippers are not the Beautiful Game Spurs or the Dynastic Warriors, so anyone expecting Leonard and George to fly around in a flurry of intricate patterns as the ball zips all over the floor will be disappointed.

What you'll probably get instead is deliberate, wear-you-down, break-your-spirit ball. George and Leonard will be effective together, but what they produce may not be pretty.

Things were particularly ugly against the Celtics.

The Clippers were a careless mess early, turning the ball over 23 times for the game and surrendering far too many open looks to Boston shooters. If the Celtics hadn't bricked their way to 1-of-18 shooting from deep in the first half, the game could easily have been over at the break.

It wasn't, though, as Boston took only a two-point advantage into halftime. After a back-and-forth third quarter, the Celtics' advantage grew to 10 points with 6:15 left in regulation. And though George's playmaking was integral to the Clippers' comeback, L.A. won the game with a collective effort.

Lou Williams was huge down the stretch, scoring five points in the final 31.7 seconds of regulation and finishing with a team-high 27 overall.

Patrick Beverley logged 14 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists, three steals, two blocks and, it should go without saying, roughly 694 combined instances of extreme hustle and foul-baiting. He also hit an overtime three with 43.9 seconds left that ultimately put the game out of reach.

Coming into the season, it felt like health was the only obstacle to George and Leonard forming an unstoppable tandem. But when the turnovers were flying into the stands, the shots were clanging off iron and neither star seemed to be elevating the other, some doubt crept in.

Yes, it was only their first game, but the worriers among us couldn't help but be concerned that the team's success might not be a foregone conclusion.

On a night when George and Leonard had their moments but didn't blow the doors off overall, the Clippers still beat a Celtics team that had only lost twice coming in.

Maybe that's the most important takeaway here—that L.A. has the luxury of taking its time developing its dual-star chemistry because its role players are more than capable of filling in the gaps in the meantime.

Nobody who watched Leonard and George on Wednesday left impressed by their seamless fit, and yet the Clips beat one of the league's best teams anyway.

And when the two All-Stars eventually get a better feel for one another? Now that'll be a show.

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