He’s human after all.
For all the jokes about Kawhi Leonard being a cyborg, including his role, opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a commercial last fall for “Terminator: Dark Fate,” the guy from Moreno Valley actually is a guy, not a machine.
A career 50.8% shooter in the postseason – with a substantial sample size of 128 games – Leonard has scored fewer than the 13 points he contributed Saturday just 30 times, and not since April 30, 2015, when he suited up for San Antonio in a Western Conference first-round loss to … the Clippers.
He shot 4 for 17 (23.5%) Saturday in the Clippers’ 110-101 loss to Denver in Game 2 of their Western Conference second-round series. On only three occasions has Leonard had a poorer shooting performance in the playoffs, and in two of those games he shot a combined 12 times.
His only other worse shooting effort came in that 2015 loss to L.A., when he went 3 for 15 – including 0 for 6 in the second half, when his only two points came on free throws.
Saturday, as the Clippers continued to chisel and scratch at the Nuggets’ lead, cutting it to as few as five points with 8:36 to go and then to seven points with 2:37 remaining, their most most lethal, reliable scoring weapon was silenced entirely in the second half. He took only six shots and missed them all.
It was one of those nights Saturday, the type reserved for mortals. The rim, so famously friendly to Leonard, wasn’t cooperating. Nor were the officials, who let lots of contact at the rim go uncalled.
— Mirjam Swanson (@MirjamSwanson) September 6, 2020
It was that the Clippers “just refused to move the ball and make simple plays,” as Coach Doc Rivers put it, frustrated that his team drifted away from what worked so well in Game 1 in their desperation to close the early 44-25 deficit.
It also was Jerami Grant, the sixth-year forward who defended with his 7-foot-3 wingspan — and lots of help from his friends, including Gary Harris and Torrey Craig, different types of defenders who worked in unison with the rest of their teammates.
The Nuggets, who entered the game with a defensive rating of 120.6 this postseason, boasted a 106.3 defensive rating Saturday, when they also kept Paul George in check. The pride of Palmdale shot 7 for 19 for 22 points, a team-high as the Clippers shot a postseason-low 40.9%.
“Gary’s a big-time defender, Jerami and Torrey, they all assemble three different defensive traits, so you’re not gonna get the same dose of a guy defending you,” said the Nuggets’ Monte Morris, via Zoom, on Sunday. “Torrey plays with his long length, can meet you at the rim and get into you. Gary’s quick with his hands, and his feet. And Jerami’s just long, he can contest, he don’t give up on plays. So there’s three different category of defenders there … and we did a great job behind them as far as making them see bodies.”
Or as Nikola Jokic put it: “Their main offensive players were seeing people in front of them, we were gonna make it look crowded for them.”
After the game, Leonard’s description of what occurred matched Denver’s.
“They were more aggressive,” said Leonard, who made just 3 of 13 shots in the paint Saturday after making 9 of his 10 attempts inside in Game 1. “More aggressive in their double-teams. Collapsed the paint on drives.
“A few easy ones didn’t fall early,” he added. “And that was it from there pretty much. We got in a lot of iso basketball once we dug ourselves into a hole.”
tHe nUgGeTs dOn’t pLaY DeFeNsE pic.twitter.com/qIEhoJ7PJ7
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) September 6, 2020
And, in so doing, they allowed the Nuggets to climb out of their hole, evening the best-of-seven series, 1-1.
“Now the question and the challenge,” Denver coach Michael Malone said, “is can we do that again in game 3?”
The Clippers sounded confident Saturday night, suggesting that they’d already started solving the puzzle before they left the gym, having outscored Denver 76-66 in the final three quarters.
“Give them credit for the defense they were throwing at us,” George said. “I think I know and we’re aware of how to attack it now, just based off us talking. But they did a good job of swarming us and we’ve got to be better.”
Western Conference semifinals
Game 2: Nuggets (1-1) vs. Clippers (1-1)
When: 6 p.m. Monday
Where: Walt Disney World Resort, Lake Buena Vista, Florida