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Kawhi Leonard is going to have to excel to lead L.A. Clippers out of 0-2 hole again

Another series, another 2-0 hole for Kawhi Leonard to climb out of.

Another series, another 2-0 hole for Kawhi Leonard to climb out of.
Image: AP

This 0-2 hole, in some ways, isn’t as dispiriting as the previous round’s seemed to be for the Los Angeles Clippers.

We’re only 18 days removed from the Clippers humiliatingly coughing up the first two to the underdog Dallas Mavericks, with each loss coming on their Staples Center home floor. Never mind whether or not they’d win the series, a sweep was on the minds of some before the Clippers came back and won Games 3 and 4 in Dallas, and subsequently won Games 6 and 7 after dropping down to 3-2 following five. Their Game 7 victory in Los Angeles is the only time a home team won a game in that series.

But this time, they’re down 0-2 to the top-seeded Utah Jazz, to whom they lost last night, 117-111. Until Kawhi Leonard truly became Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers didn’t have a chance against the Mavericks, and even when he did, it didn’t amount to a guaranteed victory — see Game 2 where Leonard dropped 41 points on 14-of-21 shooting in a 127-121 loss. But still, without Leonard being Leonard — one of 12 NBA players to ever win Finals MVP multiple times — the Clippers would be cooked. In Games 6 and 7, in particular, you saw it.

In Game 6, the Mavs led 85-84 with 6:10 left, and then the Clippers outscored them 20-12 en route to a 104-97 victory. Leonard had 10 of those points and finished the evening with an all-time playoff performance of 45 points on 18 of 25 shooting, including 5-of-9 makes from deep. And In Game 7, though his scoring numbers weren’t as gaudy — he contributed 28 points on 10 of 15 shooting, along with 10 rebounds and nine assists — Leonard spearheaded the late-game defensive pressure on Luka Dončić, who finished with 46 points on 17 of 30 shooting, but shot 2-for-6 when guarded by Leonard.

That’s the guy who needs to be the catalyst for Los Angeles, not the one who was just OK, by his high standards, in Utah these first two outings.

So far, it’s been the Donovan Mitchell Show offensively. The Louisville product has scored a combined 72 points on 31 of 59 shooting so far this series and is unstoppable regardless of who is on him. Even without Mike Conley (hamstring), the Jazz have outscored the Clippers a combined nine points in the first two games.

In Game 1, Leonard was literally his average self, netting 23 points on 9 of 19 shooting. But even though Paul George pulled down 10 rebounds, he only shot 4 of 17 from the floor and finished with 20 points. Luke Kennard is really the only other Clipper who had a significant contribution, pouring in 18 points off the bench on 7 of 9 shooting. And in Game 2, Leonard was actually a touch less impactful, ending with 21 points on 8 of 17 shooting. George rebounded with a helpful 27 points on 8 of 18 shooting, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists. George also drained all nine of his free throw attempts. And Reggie Jackson actually paced the offense with 29 points on 11 of 19 shooting, including 4 of 8 makes from three. The issue? No other Clipper recorded more than 8 points. Kennard, who had the big Game 1, scored three points in 10 minutes, recording one shot attempt.

Last series, when Leonard began regularly playing as we’re accustomed to, others followed. You saw Jackson make critical closing buckets in the fourth quarter of Game 7. You saw George feed off of Leonard’s emergence, continuously attacking and getting to the foul line despite struggling from the field, and you saw the team lock in defensively seemingly every time they needed to.

We haven’t seen the Leonard that ate the hearts of Mavericks fans yet in this series, but we should expect to. The Clippers will need it in order to salvage their Western Conference title hopes. And no, this isn’t all on Leonard, or even the Leonard and George tandem — others have to step-up, too. It’s the playoffs after all. But Leonard has to lead by example as he did to dig them out of a 0-2 deficit just weeks ago. It starts with the guy who needs to be the guy.

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