LOS ANGELES — After the shot left his fingertips and the ball splashed into the net, Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George stared out toward the crowd and waved his hand.
After he swiped the ball out of the hands of Utah Jazz star Donovan Mitchell, Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard raced toward the basket and threw down a one-handed dunk.
These moments captured what makes the Clippers’ two stars so versatile, and dangerous. They have shown this potential throughout their NBA careers.
They have rarely lived up to it collectively, though, during their two years together with the Clippers.
That is until Leonard and George played a major factor in the Clippers’ 132-106 Game 3 win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday at Staples Center.
The Clippers reduced the Jazz’s first-round series lead to 2-1 partly because of Leonard’s 34 points on 14-of-24 shooting and 10 rebounds. The Clippers eliminated the possibility of a four-game Jazz sweep partly because of George's 31 points on 12-of-24 shooting, including a 6-for-10 mark from deep. Both dished out five assists. For the first time this playoffs, Leonard and George had 30-point nights in same game.
“They are two of the best in the league,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I don’t go to Mastro’s to order a ketchup. I go there to order a steak. And tonight, our guys want steak.”
One of L.A.’s most popular fine-dining establishments often serves steak with plenty of sizzle and taste. Leonard’s performances are often well done, but without much flavor. George’s performances are often rare, and leave you wanting more.
But in Game 3, Leonard and George served up an entrée on time that satisfied the Clippers’ cravings.
It came at the most opportune time, too. Technically, the Clippers would have had another game in their playoff series against Utah regardless of what happened Saturday. But considering no team has ever overcome a 3-0 series deficit,, George and Leonard basically salvaged their season.
Possibly their future, too.
Leonard is expected to re-sign with the team after declining his $36 million player option this summer, but would a second consecutive early playoff exit change that thinking? The Clippers granted a four-year, $190 million extension to George before the season started, but would their long-term commitment to him change after another playoff disappointment?
“We both understand we've got to be aggressive from this point on and do whatever it takes to win,” George said. “That's just a mentality we had to come out, get this team on the right start offensively and again just be aggressive. That's just what it's going to come down to for us.”
Hardly news-breaking that the Clippers’ championship fortunes largely rest on Leonard and George.
After seeing Leonard collect NBA titles in San Antonio (2014) and Toronto (2019), the Clippers felt he could do the same for them. After seeing George show potential as both the leader in Indiana and Russell Westbrook’s sidekick in Oklahoma City, the Clippers felt George’s presence would both compel Leonard to join the team and provide the support he needs to win an NBA title.
But the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets last year in the NBA bubble. Neither Leonard nor George delivered in the team’s Game 7 loss to Denver.
The Clippers then replaced Doc Rivers and promoted Lue as head coach, while making tweaks with off-season frontcourt changes (Serge Ibaka & Nicolas Batum in place of Montrezll Harrell) and trade-deadline deals to switch up their backcourt (veteran playmaker Rajon Rondo in place of secondary scorer Lou Williams). Meanwhile, Leonard and George had another season to play together more.
“It’s still evolving,” Leonard said. “Our chemistry is still going. Doc and T-Lue are two different coaches. So coming from one set of plays going to a new set of plays, you always have to read the chemistry from that. We’re both out there just trying to win a basketball game. If one of us has it going, or one of our teammates, we are going to look for him.”
That’s not to say that Leonard and George have not played well this season.
From last season to this season, Leonard has shot more efficiently (47% to 51.2%) and has played more minutes (32.4 to 34.1) with fewer injuries. In the regular season, George showed increases from last season to this season in scoring (21.5 points to 23.3), shooting percentage (43.9% to 46.7%), rebounds (5.7 to 6.6) and assists (3.9 to 5.2).
In the playoffs?
While Leonard had dominant performances in the Clippers’ first-round series against Dallas in Game 2 (41 points), Game 3 (36) and Game 6 (45), George impressed the Clippers with his consistent rebounding (7.0 per game).
Against the Jazz, though, the Clippers needed Leonard to maintain his dominance and George to elevate his game. Neither happened in the first two games. While Leonard averaged 22 points on 47.3% shooting, George added 23.5 points but at just a 34% clip.
Leonard somewhat defended their play by pointing out both often “made the right basketball play” and called on teammates to make open shots. But even if the Clippers have avoided attacking the rim when Jazz center Rudy Gobert stays in the paint, Lue conceded beforehand that Leonard and George “got to be a little bit more aggressive.”
Lue received his wish.
Game 3 marked the fourth time in his career, and third as a Clipper, Leonard finished a playoff game with at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. This was George’s first 30-point these playoffs. Their play offset Mitchell’s 30 point-night, which ended with him sitting out the final seven minutes because of emerging pain in his right ankle.
“PG and Kawhi really set the tone,” Lue said. “That's what we need from our two best players to be able to do that and set the table for everyone else.”
After the Jazz stormed to an 8-0 lead in the first 74 seconds, George answered with eight first-quarter points. He spent the rest of the night canning pull-up jumpers, making step-back 3-pointers and finishing through contact at the rim.
“I just shot my shots to get the shots I'm most comfortable with and stuck with it. Simple as that,” George said. “It's just putting pressure, whether I'm shooting the ball, scoring or making plays. It's just all about putting the pressure on the defense and just staying with an attack mentality all game.”
Leonard carried that mentality in the second half, scoring 12 points in both the third and fourth quarters. During that stretch, Leonard made a pair of reverse layups, floaters near the rim and pull-up jumpers.
“We’re just playing the flow of the game pretty much, trying to do everything, whether it’s defense, rebounding the basketball or talking on the floor,” Leonard said. “Shots are going to go in or not. But our job is to keep being aggressive for ourselves and others.”
By doing that, Leonard and George ensured the Clippers’ season – and their partnership – remain intact at least for a little bit longer.