Kawhi Leonard Is the Calm in the Los Angeles Clippers' Storm

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 25, 2020

MIAMI, FLORIDA - JANUARY 24:  Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers looks on against the Miami Heat during the second half at American Airlines Arena on January 24, 2020 in Miami, Florida. 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.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Kawhi Leonard has seen and done a lot in the NBA. He has two titles and two Finals MVPs. He's a two-time Defensive Player of the Year. He's made five All-Defensive teams, four All-Star teams and three All-NBA teams.

He's played about as far south as you can go in the league. He's played as far north as you can go.

He's never been in the situation he's piloting with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019-20.

During his 2013-14 run with the San Antonio Spurs, the attention surrounding his team was dwarfed by what LeBron James and the Miami Heat generated. And he wasn't surrounded by just any vets there. He could lean on legends like Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.

With the Toronto Raptors, he was on an expiring contract, playing for a team that wasn't on his list of preferred destinations when he demanded a trade out of San Antonio. It always felt like a stopgap season. And though Kawhi's presence made Toronto an instant contender, another title felt inevitable for Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors.

Claiming the title in Toronto pushed Kawhi to the legends tier, but the pressure throughout that season was sparse. Until the Raptors entered the Finals against a depleted Warriors squad, few could've expected the them to win it all.

The 2019-20 Clippers, on the other hand, have the weight of immense expectations on their shoulders. Kawhi is more than carrying his share of the burden.

On Friday, he put up 33 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, two steals and a block in L.A.'s 122-117 win over the Miami Heat at AmericanAirlines Arena. It was Miami's second home loss of the season, Kawhi's first triple-double and his seventh straight 30-point game. He's the first Clipper to put such a streak together since World B. Free in 1980.

This performance comes after a report by The Athletic's Jovan Buha and Sam Amick called L.A.'s chemistry into question:

"As more than a dozen sources shared in The Athletic's reporting on the matter, the transition from the team's overachieving past to its promising present has not been seamless. From the frustrations relating to Leonard’s injury management and his quiet ways, to the different views regarding regular-season competition, to the reality that their chosen style of play isn't always conducive to collective joy, there are issues tugging at this talented team that will need to be resolved by the time the playoffs come around."

On nights like Friday, all of that takes a backseat to Kawhi. In what has been the league's most difficult environment for visiting opponents, Kawhi seized control of the second half. He played the entire third quarter, scoring 17 of his 33 points and posting a plus-18 in that frame alone.

Miami came storming back at the end of the fourth, but there again was Kawhi. This time, he stamped out an opponent's run. With just over a minute left, he caught the ball at the top of the key, jab-stepped at Dion Waiters a couple of times and hit a dagger three over the defender's outstretched arm. From there on out, he knocked down four free throws, bringing his total to 11-of-11 for the game.

L.A. was one of the league's fun underdog stories last season, led by plucky overachievers like Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari. Harrell and Williams have taken a backseat to Kawhi and Paul George this season. Gallo is gone. The charm of 2018-19 is gone.

Something else may replace it. That feeling of inevitability the Warriors carried with them for half a decade is up for grabs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, LeBron, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers and a handful of other teams will vie for it this season.

The Clippers have a player in his prime who's already wielded this power.

The 28-year-old forward averaged 30.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 1.7 steals with a 61.9 true shooting percentage in the 2019 playoffs. No one in league history had at least as many total points and rebounds in a single postseason. He finished in the top 20 in value over replacement player in a single postseason.

He took out the Orlando Magic; Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers; Giannis and the Bucks; and the dynastic Warriors. He made clutch defensive stands. He hit huge shots, including the series winner over Philly.

"Looks like the trade worked out for them," then-Warrior Shaun Livingston said last May, per the New York Times' Marc Stein.

That statement holds true, even after Leonard's departure to Los Angeles. He was worth the risk for the Raptors. He's worth any drama that may have crept up in the first half of this season.

The NBA is as wide-open as it's been in a decade. Before Golden State's run, LeBron's Heat teams were the perennial foregone conclusion. Kawhi gives the Clippers as good a chance as anyone to win it all in 2020.

PG-13 certainly helps. Harrell, Williams, Patrick Beverley and the rest of the supporting cast make the Clippers one of the deeper contenders. They may even make another move to shore things up before the Feb. 6 trade deadline.

What Kawhi reminded everyone of Friday, as rumors of discord swirled around the team, was that few embody calm in a storm quite like him.

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