It’s a bit jarring to see Kawhi Leonard outdueled by a single opponent, but that’s exactly what happened to the two-time Finals MVP in Game 1 of the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas.
Luka Doncic torched Los Angeles to start the series on May 22, posting a 31-point triple-double as Leonard finished the night with 26 points on 22 shots. Doncic continued his brilliance in another upset in Game 2, and it wasn’t necessarily his gaudy stat lines that so concerned the Clippers. Doncic bullied Patrick Beverley and skated past Marcus Morris. He dissected double-teams with ease, and he frankly seemed unconcerned when guarded by Leonard in isolation situations. As Doncic outdueled the former champion, the Clippers left for Dallas needing Leonard to save the series.
Leonard has lived up to the responsibility thus far. He turned in a 36-point performance on 13-for-17 shooting in Game 3, and he finished Sunday’s 106-81 win with 29 points and a plus-27 in 35 minutes. Leonard is 38-for-53 from the field in his last three games. The Clippers have outscored the Mavericks by 33 points over the series’ last six quarters. Leonard has been relatively unstoppable following an underwhelming Game 1, quelling the panic that was emerging following Los Angeles's 2020 bubble flameout.
Los Angeles’s leading man made his reputation in the NBA as a historic defensive force, one who earned Finals MVP largely due his work defending LeBron James in the 2014 Finals. But Leonard’s dominance as a scorer has been evident for nearly a half-decade now. His duel with Mike Conley in the 2017 playoffs served as his breakout as a true superstar, and he appeared ready for a duel with Steph Curry in that year’s Western Conference finals before he landed on Zaza Pachulia's foot. Leonard averaged 34.7 points in seven games against the Sixers in 2019, led a comeback against the Bucks then sealed the deal against the last gasp of the Warriors’ dynasty. None of this is necessarily a newsflash, but the context is relevant. Leonard is perhaps the most efficient scorer currently in the postseason, with the ability to bury teams at all three levels of the floor. When Leonard is at his playoff best, this is still a team with legitimate championship aspirations.
A hot stretch for Leonard isn’t necessarily a death knell for the Mavericks, but they need their young phenom to keep up in order to potentially pull off the upset. That wasn’t the case in Game 4. Doncic appeared hobbled for extended stretches as he battles a cervical strain, and he finished Sunday night with 19 points on 9-for-24 shooting from the field and 1-for-7 from three. Kristaps Porzingis is not a viable leading man. Tim Hardaway is more of a streaky spark-plug than any kind of lead initiator. It’s hard to imagine this series going to a seventh game without Doncic getting back to 100 percent.
A healthy Doncic could still swing this series even as Leonard finds his groove. Game 1 and Game 2 of the first round was anything but an aberration, with Doncic’s outstanding performance mirroring his first-round effort against the Clippers in 2020. Doncic is a historic young player in every sense of the word. He’s the most intellectually advanced player of his age since young LeBron, and like James, Doncic has an answer for every coverage thrown his way. Just as James sprinted to the Finals with an outmanned Cavaliers team in 2007, it’s not impossible for Doncic to do so in a talented, yet imperfect Western Conference in 2021.
Such a scenario is plausible, though after a pair of games in Dallas, it doesn’t exactly feel likely as Game 5 approaches. Rajon Rondo is beginning to leave his mark on this series. Paul George looks comfortable against an unimposing defense. Head coach Tyronn Lue is protecting Ivica Zubac from significant stretches in front of Doncic, and unlike last year, there does seem to be at least a modicum of cohesion across the roster. The tug-of-war we saw last year has faded under Lue’s leadership.
We can make all the 3–1 jokes we want as the Clippers look to make amends for last year’s collapse. And frankly, the skepticism over this team’s resolve in key moments is still pretty warranted. Yet to dismiss the Clippers as title contenders based on last year’s failings feels a touch misguided. Sunday night marked another step in the right direction for the Clippers, who may have taken control of this series as Doncic tries to get back on track. Perhaps most importantly, the last two games reinforced a key point about Los Angeles: if Leonard is at his best, this is a team he can lead to the promised land.
More NBA Coverage: