Kawhi Leonard Can Carry the Clippers, Regardless of What 'Playoff P' Brings

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2020

Los Angeles Clippers' Kawhi Leonard (2) scores ahead of Dallas Mavericks' Maxi Kleber (42) during the second half of an NBA basketball first round playoff game Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The Clippers won 130-122. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis, Pool)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

"Playoff P" trended on Twitter during the Los Angeles Clippers' 130-122 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Friday.

For the seventh time in 14 playoff games since giving himself that moniker, Paul George shot worse than 40 percent from the field. Friday, he was 3-of-16 on the way to 11 points.

But L.A. still controlled most of the last three quarters of Game 3. Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell had some moments off the bench. Marcus Morris played stellar defense on Luka Doncic before the latter left with a sprained left ankle. Landry Shamet made the most of his insertion into the starting lineup with 18 points.

But the clearest reason the Clippers went up 2-1 in this first-round series was the same player who quietly controlled the entirety of the 2019 postseason: Kawhi Leonard.

Regardless of what's happening with either team, Kawhi always seems steady. Almost detached, like his robotic alter ego.

PG can't find the rim? Luka's hurt? Kristaps Porzingis (34 points and 13 rebounds) is going off?

Nothing distracts Kawhi.

On Friday, with Shamet starting in place of Reggie Jackson, Leonard essentially played the 1 for the Clippers. And it couldn't have gone much better.

His 36 points were the seventh-most he's ever scored in a playoff game. Even more notable, the eight assists he tallied were the second-most he's ever had in the postseason.

This was a clinic from Kawhi. Regardless of who was on him—Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, you name it—he calmly ran the offense and scored in isolation. That led to a feeling of security for the Clippers, even in the midst of mini-runs from the Mavs and miss after miss from PG.

To reach its peak, L.A. almost certainly needs George to more consistently play like the guy who finished third in MVP voting last season. But Friday was a vivid example of how handy a two-time Finals MVP and some depth is.

The trade for Morris didn't look like a home run in the regular season, but he's given the Clippers exactly what they need in the playoffs.

Beyond the physical defense he played on Doncic, which was largely responsible for the young All-Star's 4-of-14 shooting performance, Morris went 4-of-5 from three and grabbed eight rebounds.

Playing him with Leonard and George gives L.A. one of the league's most formidable (and switchable) forward trios in the NBA.

Then, the off-the-bench chemistry between LouWill and Harrell is a dynamic change of pace from that group.

After missing all of the team's seeding games, Harrell struggled to find his old form in the first two games of this series. He was back to being a ball of energy Friday, scoring 13 points on just five field-goal attempts in 18 minutes. Williams added 10, including a momentum-squashing three in the second half.

As for the move to replace Jackson (who was replacing the injured Patrick Beverley) with Shamet, that now looks borderline inspired.

With Kawhi at the controls, having a "we at least have to pay attention to him" floor-spacer keeps the middle of the floor more open for isos.

And finally, there's George. Despite shooting 18.8 percent from the field, he still found a way to positively impact the game. His defense was at its typically stingy level. And he handed out seven assists.

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

Put this all together—and we didn't even mention Ivica Zubac's 15 points—and it isn't hard to see why the Clips now have the highest chance to win the title, according to FiveThirtyEight's projection system.

They have the size, athleticism and varying types of talent necessary to counter seemingly any opponent.

This round, the advantage is the number of switchy forwards they can throw at Luka, who may now be limited by the ankle injury.

After the game, he said, "It's not that bad," but he was clearly moving gingerly in a brief return to the floor in the fourth quarter. Without Doncic, Dallas almost certainly can't match L.A.'s versatility.

And if the Clippers do advance, they can easily adjust in ways that'll trouble the Utah Jazz or Denver Nuggets. Morris can play small-ball 5 and bring Rudy Gobert out of the paint. Forcing Nikola Jokic to defend relentless Harrell pick-and-rolls is a recipe for success.

Against the Los Angeles Lakers, a potential Western Conference Finals foe, the Clippers once again have plenty of options to throw at a dynamic point forward (in this case, LeBron James).

The thread running through every adjustment, though, is Kawhi. Regardless of how L.A. wants to play, he'll be the focal point. And few are better, especially in the playoffs.

There will probably be games when Playoff P looks more like what George imagined when he first referred to himself as that.

"It's gonna turnaround for him, and we've got his back," Leonard said of PG's off night.

Even if it doesn't, the Clippers are far from doomed.