Clippers

Don’t Take Any Kawhi-Durant Duels for Granted

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After a long stretch of having no clear idea of what seed the Clippers were going to be, they are set to face the Suns in the first round.

In the past, some believe the Clips have toyed with seeding to get their desired opponent. Regardless, this year they won out, leaving nothing up to chance.

Clippers’ good karma for competing enough to take on the 8-0 Kevin Durant Suns?

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KAWHI’S RETURN TO THE POSTSEASON

Discussion towards the end of the year revolved around avoiding the fifth seed, and for good reason.

They have Kevin Durant.

But the Clippers have Kawhi Leonard. The last time Leonard was in the playoffs, he became the first player since Shaq to average 30 PPG on 60 % FG. The craziest thing is the average distance on Kawhi’s shots was 13’4″ to Shaq’s 4’6″.

Kawhi was putting up historic numbers before heartbreak ensued in game four, leaving him sidelined for the rest of the playoffs. Kawhi’s much-anticipated return this year was surrounded with uncertainty at the beginning. After the rocky start, he has been on fire showing everyone why the Clippers should be feared.

Since Christmas, Kawhi is averaging 26.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game in 39 contests. He is also shooting a staggering 54.4% from the field,  45.8% from three and 89.9% from the line.

With Kawhi and KD fully healthy and in form, fans are finally getting the playoff matchup they’ve been waiting for.

LONG-AWAITED MATCHUP

While KD and Kawhi have played 20 games against each other in the playoffs, those games have been surrounded by a multitude of unfortunate circumstances.

Firstly, a majority of these games came prior to Kawhi’s rise to superstardom. Secondly, as superstars the two players have been a part of two playoff series together in 2017 and 2019. Disappointingly, Kawhi only played one game in 2017 due to injury and KD only played one game in 2019 due to injury.

Fans have been robbed of many marquee matchups, so this is one that certainly should not be taken for granted.

Both Durant and Leonard can score from all three levels and dominate in the mid-range. They both rank in the top ten for mid-range field goals made this year. There is little hope of stopping either of these players one on one.

Kawhi has, however, slowed down seemingly unstoppable players in the past. You don’t even have to go back to his days as a defensive-minded role player on the Spurs. The last time Kawhi was in the playoffs, he was giving Luka Doncic serious trouble.

Obviously Kawhi will not be guarding KD one on one for 48 minutes, but the Clippers possess the personnel to throw many different looks at Durant and pay homage to PJ Tucker’s valiant effort against KD by fouling him and getting under his skin.

Boston did a tremendous job guarding KD in the playoffs last season en route to sweeping the Nets. Boston played intense heavy ball-denial defense on Durant while also taking advantage of the lack of offensive capabilities of KD’s teammates.

Unfortunately for the Clips, the Suns possess a much more capable roster than last season’s Nets.

The Clippers will likely employ some of these strategies to test Josh Okogie‘s offensive ability. Okogie has been having a great season, shooting a career-high 33.5% from beyond the arc. For most of his career, Okogie has been a non-threat on offense. Taking advantage of this can limit the Suns’ best option for guarding Kawhi Leonard.

While the No. 1 options are the most important factors in a series, the impact of the other players should not be underestimated.

X-FACTOR PLAYERS

With PG sidelined to start of the series and likely to miss some games, the Clippers’ ceiling is limited. This is where the Clippers have the biggest gap to overcome. While their second star is injured, the Suns’ second star is Devin Booker, who torched the Clippers the last time these two teams met in the playoffs.

This time around, Booker has the benefit of being the second guy to worry about. The Clips will certainly exhaust all potential defenders and schemes to try and stop him. Like his teammate Durant, however, you can appear to have them locked up and they will still create something out of nothing.

The next critical thing in this series revolves around the performance of each team’s aging point guards. Both players have been playing well for their teams as of recent, but if one of them can turn back the clock, it could swing the series.

While both Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul have been successful in this league for a long time, they have polar-opposite playstyles.

Starting off with CP3, he is a methodic and classic point guard. He loves to control the pace of the game and bend the rules to his will.

Which, love it or hate it — mostly hate — it works.

Paul has been a very consistent performer throughout the years. Nothing less should be expected besides a solid outing.

Jose Alvarado did his best job providing the blue print for disturbing Paul’s rhythm.

https://twitter.com/ESPNNBA/status/1518452855757172737?s=20

This is not saying the Clippers need to hide behind the cameraman on inbounds— then again I wouldn’t complain if they did. Instead, employing Alvarado’s tactics of constant on-ball pressure to try and speed up Paul.

Moving on to Russ, he is erratic and loves to play fast. This can get him in trouble, but more importantly it injects life and energy in his Clipper teammates.

Russ’ infectious energy is integral to the Clippers. The team has had many low-energy performances and come out flat many times. With Russ, there’s never a dull moment.

With the absence of PG, Russ needs to do his best to fill the void.

It would be unreasonable to expect a 2016-17 MVP-type performance from Russ, but he has numerous reps in the spotlight and knows how to handle these responsibilities better than anyone.

How much the Clips can put their small-ball lineup on the floor is a determinant of the ceiling of Russ’ play.

The one thing preventing the Clippers from playing small is Deandre Ayton. Ayton was vital for the Suns the last time these teams met in the playoffs averaging 17.8 points, 13.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per contest. The Clippers tried to play small in that series but Ayton made them pay.

The good news for Clipper fans is that Ayton has yet to show he can consistently play at the level he reached in the playoffs two years ago.

This is where Ayton becomes one of the biggest X-factors in the series.

There is a world where he takes advantage of the Clippers small ball and all of the attention Booker and KD receive. But there is also another world where Ayton has two-to-three games where he looks completely disinterested.

Regardless of injuries and pre-series favorites, the Clippers have everything it takes to make this series competitive and give themselves a shot.

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About Josh Douglas

Josh is a fan of shot creators, big guys that play like guards, and on-court accessories. He is an avid supporter of all things Clippers and 76ers. Josh writes about the L.A. Clippers.

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