Even though the Clippers also have a history of coming up short in the playoffs …
Even though they blew a 3-1 series lead against the Denver Nuggets a year ago …
Even though they were inconsistent this season en route to the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference…
Even though they needed a full seven games to dispatch Dallas in the first round this time …
Despite all of that, the Clippers seem to be afforded a certain benefit of the doubt that their Western Conference semifinal opponents, the Utah Jazz, do not get.
Why? Well, for one pretty simple reason.
That reason is a 6-foot-7, 225-pound, 29-year-old, two-time NBA Finals Most Valuable Player named Kawhi Anthony Leonard.
The Claw, The Board Man, The Fun Guy, The Terminator — regardless of the nickname du jour, his reputation as one of the league’s elite players and his history of coming up clutch in the postseason inspire a trust from the masses that these Jazz simply cannot command.
The Jazz players themselves hold him in a certain reverence — perhaps a warranted reaction considering how he just “destroyed” the Mavericks, according to no less than Luka Doncic.
[Read more: Complete Utah Jazz playoff coverage]
“One thing I respect about Kawhi Leonard, man — obviously everybody talks about his two-way ability, which is elite — but [it’s] his will to win, by any means necessary,” All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell said after Monday’s practice. “There are possessions where he was guarding Luka, there are possessions where he was scoring, there are possessions where he was getting offensive rebounds, getting defensive rebounds, blocking shots — that’s what leaders do, and that’s what he does for that team. He does everything.”
Certainly seemed like it.
JAZZ-CLIPPERS SERIES SCHEDULE
Game 1 • Tuesday, 8 p.m. MT, at Utah, TNT
Game 2 • Thursday, 8 p.m. MT, at Utah, ESPN
Game 3 • Saturday, 6:30 p.m. MT, at Los Angeles, ABC
Game 4 • June 14, 8 p.m. MT, at Los Angeles, TNT
Game 5* • June 16, time TBD, at Utah, TNT
Game 6* • June 18, time TBD, at Los Angeles, ESPN
Game 7* • June 20, time TBD, at Utah, TV TBD
* — if necessary
He especially came alive in the final two games of the series against Dallas — 45 points (on 18-for-25 shooting), six rebounds, three assists, and two steals in Game 6 to stave off elimination; then 28 points (on 10-for-15 from the field), 10 rebounds, nine assists, four steals, and a block in the clinching Game 7.
Good as he is during the regular season — and he is a five-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year — he seems to elevate his game to that next level in the postseason. He’s 18-6 in 24 career playoff series, and after being elevated from a supporting cast member during his early years with the Spurs to the focal point of the Raptors and now the Clippers, he holds career postseason averages of 21.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game, on 51.1% shooting, 40.1% from 3, and 84.4% at the line.
The Jazz are certainly cognizant of what he’s capable of — and what the Clippers are capable of with him.
“Well, he’s probably the best two-way player in our league. The way he played against Dallas, it’s unbelievable,” said Bojan Bogdanovic. “I mean, just his footwork and his ability to hit tough shots. The challenge for us is going to be to keep him in front and make him take and make tough shots. I mean, we have a lot of great defenders on our team, so I hope that we’re going to slow him down.”
Clippers coach Ty Lue was asked Monday what it is that enables Leonard to dial it up another notch when the postseason rolls around.
He said the answer is pretty straightforward.
“The work he puts in every day. A lot of times, me and my coaching staff, we say he’s over-working, he’s working too hard. But, every day is the same routine: he’s out there an hour before every practice, working, getting his shots up, and then after, he’s doing 30 more minutes after practice. And it’s been the same routine for the last two years since I’ve been here,” Lue said. “Sometimes you think that he needs to get the rest, but he continues to put that same work in every day. I think just him putting the work in and understanding that he’s trying to get himself ready for the playoffs and the postseason. And then he really stepped it up for us in the seven-game series.”
The key for the Jazz, Mitchell said, is not getting caught up in worrying about Leonard, and simply maintaining trust in what they’ve done all season.
“Credit to him. He’s going to be a tough matchup for us,” Mitchell said. “But we’ve got to go out there and understand we do what we do.”