As the LA Clippers watched a 23-point lead shrink to six with just over nine minutes left in Game 6, Kawhi Leonard didn’t need to say much.
The reigning NBA Finals MVP closed out the Dallas Mavericks by making four consecutive shots to fuel a series-clinching 17-7 run and propel the Clippers to the second round of the NBA playoffs with a 111-97 victory Sunday in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.
Leonard finished with 33 points, 14 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 steals to become just the seventh player to have 30 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists and 5 steals in a playoff game, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
“I mean Kawhi’s a man of business,” teammate Paul George said. “He stepped up and stepped in time after time, whenever we needed him he put us on his back and he finished the series. I can’t say it enough. After this series, he’s the most reliable guy. His shot-making and his time on awareness plays — he is one of a kind.”
But Wednesday, Leonard felt the need to come out of his reserved shell and speak up. During an emotional players’ and coaches’ meeting to determine whether to continue the postseason, Leonard was one of the players to talk after the Milwaukee Bucks sparked a string of postponed games when they opted not to take the court in Game 5 of their first-round series against the Orlando Magic.
Players and coaches were emotional over how to move forward after police shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, in the back multiple times in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
“Didn’t really know what to think at that point,” Leonard said in his first comments about what he said in the meeting. “Pretty much the whole league didn’t want to stop playing. You know, just told them just we can’t control what’s going on outside.
“All we can control is what we’re doing on and off the floor. Just take it one message at a time to change the racial injustice or whatever you want to do, in education or group economics. It’s just up to the individual to change one mind off the floor. You know, we just stayed steady.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers, who also spoke during the meeting at the request of Oklahoma City point guard and National Basketball Players Association president Chris Paul, said Leonard’s calm demeanor was needed during a tense meeting among players.
The Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers initially voted on perhaps not continuing with the season when the players were polled during the meeting, sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. But the players agreed on Thursday to continue the season.
“Everybody knows Kawhi is a man of few words,” George said of Leonard speaking up. “But when he speaks, it’s coming from a great place and he’s going to get his point across. His demeanor was felt, his presence was felt and was powerful in all our meetings.”
The same could be said about Leonard in the postseason. In his first playoff series as a Clipper, Leonard scored 32 or more points in five consecutive games to close the Mavericks out. He averaged 32.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists in the 4-2 win in the Western Conference first-round series.
The Clippers had difficulty at times holding on to big leads during this series. But Leonard was always steady.
After Luka Doncic hit a step-back 3 with 9:28 left to pull the Mavericks within 88-82, Rivers called a timeout and inserted Leonard back into the game. After a Landry Shamet 3, Leonard drove for a dunk and then drilled a 15-footer, 16-footer and 23-footer. After he fed Ivica Zubac for a dunk while being fouled for a 3-point play, the Clippers led 108-92 with 4:50 left.
“You could tell he was the one guy that was used to closing out a series,” Rivers said of Leonard, who has won two NBA titles, one each with Toronto and San Antonio. “He was calm, he got us in place. During games, you fall on a set, and we fell on that little elbow set for him. He just took what was there. If they didn’t come, he scored; if they came, he made the right pass.”
“The one thing I didn’t know — I knew he could pass, and I knew he may be a good passer — I didn’t know he was an elite passer,” Rivers added. “And that’s something you don’t know until you coach a guy.”
Leonard says it helps knowing in moments like those what it takes to win a championship. But Leonard has never tried to win a championship in an environment like the one on the NBA campus in Florida.
Like other players, Leonard admits he has struggled at times to adapt to the bubble environment.
“For sure,” Leonard said. “I mean, you’re not able to see family. You’re doing the same thing every day. It kind of feels like you can’t get away from the game. But I’ve kind of been here, before going through rehab, dealing with my knee injury, it was basically going to rehab, going home. Wasn’t going outside.
“Your teammates are your family, so you’ve just got to spend time with them, get outside with them, laugh and joke and really just don’t take it so seriously. Just one day at a time.”