As the referees checked a replay to adjust the shot clock after Leonard’s dismissal with 1:46 left and the LA Clippers up six points on their way to a 113-107 Game 3 win over the Denver Nuggets, the Clippers bench reacted to the replay. In measures of disbelief, respect and fun, Leonard’s teammates mimicked the absurd game.
“I was a secondary assist so I stepped up and decided to challenge the shot. And I saw in the end that he was going to try to take a dive and just, you know, reached out and tried to block the shot, ”Leonard said. “You know, I ended up having a blockage. ”
It is an accurate description of what happened.
“It’s an extra long middle finger,” Paul George said with a little more emotion. “He kept on growing or something like that. ”
It’s times like these that everyone remembers how worth a player like Leonard is. That’s why the Raptors let Leonard use their throw to fly back and forth to San Diego as he mulled over a new signing. That’s why the Clippers hired his favorite assistant coach. This is why the fittings are made for each of his desires, from trainers to barbers and, above all, to protect his knee.
The Clippers dreamed of nights like this when they stalked Leonard as he made his way to free will. That’s why they paid such a high price to trade for George to secure his signature.
Monday might have seemed a relatively pedestrianized evening for an All-Star of Leonard’s caliber: 23 points below par with an otherwise enjoyable but not overwhelming line of 14 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 blocks.
In truth, it was more of George’s night to get attention, as he had one of those hot shooter games he occasionally offers, as he made 12 of 18 attempts to score 32 points. He was also a huge offensive point defender on Murray, who whistled just 14 points on 5 of 17 shots. Murray was 0 for 6 when George was his main defender, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
But there was a reason George grabbed Leonard’s shoulders and squeezed them in appreciation as they left the floor. Even on a day when he was awesome, George couldn’t have won without Leonard.
In the second quarter, as the Nuggets still fueled the energy of their impressive Game 2 victory, Denver built a 12-point lead. But Leonard scored six straight points to change momentum.
In the fourth quarter, he tied the game on a free throw, gave the Clippers the lead with a brilliant rebound pass to Ivica Zubac, extended the lead over one of his midrange jumpers, and then got two rebounds and the blockage to bring This is home.
“It’s not about scoring,” Leonard said. “I had to be a playmaker.”
The Nuggets offense continued through the night, despite Murray struggling, but Leonard led the charge that disabled it in the fourth. Denver shot just 7 of 22 down the stretch, and the Nuggets shooters were 1 of 7 with Leonard and George as the main defensemen in the fourth.
Leonard has dozens of this type of play – when he puts the opponent in a sleep hold and fight – on his playoff roundup. He has one of the highest playoff winning percentages in league history, at 0.658, for a reason. What he excels at – those daring and sublime defensive plays, those clutch baskets on outstretched arms, and his ability to stay emotionally flat even under extreme circumstances – value balls in the playoffs.
To some extent, the Clippers are still trying to find their place. Coach Doc Rivers lamented allowing the Nuggets to get 19 more shots – a product of excessive turnovers – and gave up three out of play baskets out of bounds. George has largely recovered from a miserable spell in the first round, but bench duo Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are battling falls.
They don’t show their potential league level yet, and they’re going to have to because the other three teams still alive in the Western Conference are pretty dangerous. But the Clippers certainly have a championship player at Leonard, and wow, that makes a difference when it counts.
“It’s a team effort,” Leonard said. “You can’t win a basketball game with one player. ”
This is true, but again it depends on the player.