The weight of the Clippers' postseason success rests on Kawhi Leonard

·6 min read

For once, the Los Angeles Clippers weren’t on the gagging side of a choke job.

Beating the Dallas Mavericks in a thrilling seven-game matchup doesn’t exorcise demons, erase the recent or long ago past or quiet the second-guessing of setting themselves up with a matchup against Luka Doncic.

All it does is clinch a berth against the rested Utah Jazz, as +135 underdogs at BetMGM, in 48 hours in Salt Lake City — and further cement the belief there’s no reason they shouldn’t come out of the West to at least make the NBA Finals, if not win the whole damn thing.

The deepest team in the league showed why only the name “Clippers” has stopped them from being a consensus pick to go to a land they’ve never been before — a form of failure-induced PTSD.

The character of all the main characters came into question when this dizzying series began, accomplished men like Kawhi Leonard and Ty Lue, before Leonard said “enough of the nonsense” and put his game into overdrive.

It doesn’t clear Lue from hunting the matchup with Doncic or master tactician Rick Carlisle, because it almost spelled doom. It seemed as if the lone strategy was, “Let Luka make all the plays for 36 minutes, then we’ll pray he gets tired out in the fourth” — which turned out to be the best course of action given the result.

Avoiding the wounded Lakers, you know, that team in the same building who was unceremoniously bounced by the Phoenix Suns, must feel like seeing Freddy Krueger was actually Frosty the Snowman. We won’t see the Lakers-Clippers matchup that has been salivated about for nearly two years, and the stars may never align it. But the Clippers' goals should never have revolved around what part of the bracket the Lakers sit on, especially when they have a boogeyman of their own who seems just as capable at engineering a monstrous comeback with hands that can pat you on the back and poke you in the eye at the same time.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic moves to the basket against Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during Game 7 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series at Staples Center on June 6, 2021. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic moves to the basket against Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard during Game 7 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series at Staples Center on June 6, 2021. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Leonard showed he can be the most devastating player in the West, and the dream of seeing the Kevin Durant matchup that was deferred two years ago can still come to fruition, although plenty has to occur for that to happen.

Doncic was absurd in this series, and Game 7 was hardly different. Averaging 35 with 10 assists and nearly eight rebounds adds to the ledger even though he’s been sent home in the first round yet again.

“He did everything. I don’t know how many 40-point games he had, three or four,” Leonard said. “Shooting very efficiently from three, for sure. Off-the-dribble shots. He's a great player and we're going to see him for many years to come.”

But Leonard shouldn’t be slept on. It was a humble 28-10-9 showing, with zero turnovers after giving it away nine times the last two games. Counting Game 5’s bizarre outing, he still averaged 32 points on 60% shooting and gave Doncic fits when taking the matchup.

It can’t be overstated enough. They weren’t just down 2-0; the Clippers were down 2.9 games to zero considering the nearly 20-point deficit in the opening minutes of Game 3. And this topsy-turvy series didn’t produce a home team holding serve until Game 7.

And although they didn’t take a conventional route, they didn’t go through a full meltdown or panic.

“Our approach, I think every single day, having a worker's mentality,” Lue said. “I think having a calmness to us not getting rattled, be poised when things go wrong and things are tough for us.

“So I think we came to the timeout down 19, we never rattled. Guys were saying we gotta clean up our mistakes, keep attacking and keep chipping away, and we were able to do that.”

It won’t be branded as a choke given the talent disparity and the way Doncic carried the Mavs, but if the Clippers had blown any substantial lead in this series, the tone would be much more harsh.

The Mavs have earned a benefit of the doubt from the public the Clippers could only dream about. A series win over the top-seeded Utah Jazz would go a long way toward establishing respect, ending the jokes.

Winning a Game 7 without Paul George summoning a superstar performance bodes well for the rest of the roster, but like many top-heavy teams, this only works if the max players show out like max players.

Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard came up big, with Lue foreshadowing his use of Kennard in Game 6. It was nearly costly two days ago, but shaking off the cobwebs proved worthy on Sunday.

The 20 3-pointers, 13 from that trio, were the most in a Game 7 in NBA history.

“Coming out here, winning the game on a home floor, you know, which we didn't play well on the first three games,” Lue said. “But it says a lot of our team about the resilience about what we've done all season long.”

Kawhi Leonard finally led the Clippers to a home playoff win this season, defeating the Clippers in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)
Kawhi Leonard finally led the Clippers to a home playoff win this season, defeating the Clippers in Game 7 to advance to the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

Leonard again showed last season’s collapse is more anomaly than the Clippers dust sapping his powers, matching Doncic with impact plays as the series wore on. Doncic, humanly, got tired as the games went on, as the series went from a ballroom hustle to a slower grind. Being able to lean on other players can obscure the fatigue, but he can’t use that strategy on Leonard — perhaps the only player in the league who’ll be immune to the tactic.

Leonard isn’t the slender sports car he was in San Antonio, but when it's called for, he can be as clutch, efficient and downright scary during the big moments. His calm demeanor will only be praised when the result takes form. If the Clippers lose, it’ll be because Leonard didn’t treat the moment with the appropriate urgency, it’ll be because the Clippers are chokers and fakers.

“You just know to keep faith,” Leonard said. “You know what you have gone through at times when we are at our worst and you could, I guess propel from that, dig yourself out of a hole you put yourself in.”

But since Leonard noted this is just one series, with the Jazz up next — perhaps he can call Faith a little quicker.

What’s her number?

More from Yahoo Sports: