There have been moments during this see-saw first-round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks that have forced people to ask the question: Has Luka Doncic passed Kawhi Leonard on the list of the NBA’s best players? Before this postseason the suggestion probably would have been dismissed with a Kawhi-esque chuckle, but Doncic has closed the gap considerably with the way he has played in this series.
However, with a dominant performance in the Clippers’ 104-97 Game 6 victory over the Mavericks on Friday, Leonard reminded all of us why he’s in the conversation as the league’s best player. Leonard tied a playoff career high with 45 points, 29 of which came in the second half, on 18-for-25 shooting, including 5 for 9 from 3-point range. The Clippers carried a two-point lead with just over three minutes remaining in the game, when Leonard rattled off eight straight points to keep their championship hopes alive.
“He destroyed us,” Doncic said of Leonard after the loss. “That’s what it is. He had a hell of a game. That’s what he does.”
Doncic got a firsthand look at Leonard during that crucial stretch in the fourth quarter. Leonard hunted Doncic by calling for whoever he was guarding to set a screen and force a switch. That left Doncic on an island against the red-hot Leonard, who took full advantage. First, Leonard actually catches Doncic on his heels and has an open look at a step-back 3-pointer, but doesn’t shoot.
Instead he takes a couple dribbles in and hits his patented mid-range jumper.
After that, Kawhi smells blood. Next time down the court, he motions for his teammates to clear out the left side, and brings Marcus Morris over to force the switch onto Doncic. Perhaps remembering that last possession he caught Doncic leaning on a step-back, this time he lets it fly from well beyond the 3-point line and knocks it down.
Leonard once again goes after Doncic on the ensuing Clippers possession, but this time Dorian Finney-Smith has seen enough and comes to double-team him. The Clippers fail to take advantage and the ball ends up back in the hands of Leonard, who makes an ungardable step-back 3-pointer over Finney-Smith to give his team an eight-point lead with 1:40 remaining.
The tactic of hunting Doncic, at least in part, came from the Clippers coaching staff. Tyronn Lue said after the game that they noticed Doncic looked fatigued down the stretch and wanted to force him to play defense against Leonard or Paul George.
“We could see [Doncic] was wearing down and getting tired,” Lue said. “So our last six-minute package, we … tried to get a mismatch and they was switching, so Kawhi was able to take advantage of it, and P.G. was as well, and they started to double-team. When he’s tired and worn out, that’s when we are going to try to take advantage of the switching.”
Leonard said he came out with more of a defensive mindset against the Mavericks on Friday, taking the assignment of guarding Doncic for much of the game, but he got more aggressive offensively when he started feeling it in the third quarter.
“I didn’t want to go home. I had to exert myself into the game,” Leonard said after Game 6. “My teammates found me. I got some open looks and knocked them down, and I just kept going from there.”
Leonard will have to excel once again in Sunday’s Game 7 if the Clippers are going to avoid elimination, and he has experienced both sides of the win-or-go-home scenario. After making one of the most impressive Game 7 shots in NBA history two years ago to send home the Philadelphia 76ers en route to a Toronto Raptors championship, Leonard shot just 6 for 22 from the field and failed to score in the fourth quarter of last postseason’s Game 7 loss in the bubble against the Denver Nuggets, who completed an improbable comeback from a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Clippers.
As you might expect, Leonard said he doesn’t think about his past experiences and is instead focusing on the future. Whether he feels it or not, however, the weight of the Clippers franchise is hanging on his chiseled shoulders once again.
“That’s what I tried to instill with [my teammates] now: To make sure that we keep fighting, don’t give up, and you never know what could happen,” Leonard said after the game. “Just have faith and then, you know, play hard, have fun. That’s all you can do.”