The Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz both entered Sunday’s contest with 4-2 records in the daunting Western Conference, where every game feels like it’s a must-win. A dominant second half performance by Kawhi Leonard carried the Clippers to a 105-94 victory over the Jazz.
The Jazz jumped out to an early 8-0 lead against the defensive minded Clippers who looked sluggish to start the game. On the offensive end, the Clippers shot was continually off the mark, prompting Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers to call an early timeout at the 8:21 mark in the first quarter and rally his troops.
“We were walking the ball up the floor a lot [in the first half] on makes and misses. We were just trying to say get the ball up the floor, they are a long team. If you are going to walk the ball up against Utah, it is going to be a hard night to score,” said Rivers.
Ivica Zubac scored the first 8 of 12 points for the Clippers spearheading the offense. Kawhi missed his first five shots from the field to start the game and as the first quarter ended it wasn’t Leonard leading his team in scoring as we’ve become accustomed to. Zubac and Lou Williams were the two early scorers keeping the Clippers afloat.
Kawhi scored his first points of the game at the 9:56 mark in the second quarter. The outside shots weren’t falling but the Clippers made their presence felt by dominating points in the paint 46 to 34, as well as outrebounding the Western Conference foes on the glass 54 to 37. The Clippers Achilles heel was their poor three-point shooting. In the first half, the Jazz shot 31% from downtown while the Clippers shot a disappointing 12%. But just before halftime, the Clippers were able to grind and hustle their way back to nearly even up the score at the break 41-39 in favor of the Jazz with their physicality in the paint.
“The last two games were just grinded and out physical, hard playing defensive games. We would make a run, then they closed out the second quarter which was crushing for us, then they would go up 10 or eight and then we’d make another run. It was just one of those games,” stated Rivers.
Kawhi Leonard came to life in the second half as he and Jazz superstar Donovan Mitchell went head to head. Leonard put on his heroic cape and was money in the fourth quarter when his team needed him the most. Mitchell scored 36 points with 17 points in the fourth quarter. Kawhi finished the game with 30 points and the two time NBA champion scored 25 points in the second half with 18 in the fourth quarter.
According to Doc Rivers, the game plan that seemed to not pan out in the first half was never changed during Kawhi’s epic fourth quarter.
“I guess that’s what [Kawhi Leonard] can do, really. We didn’t change anything. I though [Kawhi Leonard] and [Lou Williams] started running some good stuff together. We are clearly trying to still figure that out, we are so new. We are going to get better and better at it,” emphasized Rivers. “Then, when you add [Paul George] you have a third guy that you can run actions for.”
Clippers center Montrezl Harrell had mentioned that with Kawhi’s accolades and his ability to get hot from the field at any moment, his performance tonight was not surprising.
“Kawhi [Leonard] is a winner. He’s a superstar and he knows how to win. He’s won on multiple big stages with multiple teams, so it’s not going to be a surprise no matter what he’s doing from the field,” said Harrell. “He always can get hot and he’s always going to be one of those guys who can get hot. He’s always one of those guys that can be keyed-in and [make plays] in the offense.”
Kawhi showed why he was such a sought over free agent this summer. His superstardom and talent are leading the Clippers to very important early season victories. The (5-2) Clippers will face league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the (4-2) Milwaukee Bucks at Staples Center Wednesday at 7pm.