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Kawhi and PG fail to deliver for Clippers

by Akinbode Oguntuyi

It was supposed to be easy. Or at least, it wasn’t supposed to be that hard.

Los Angeles Clippers, crowned Champions of the 2020/21 season even before the season tipped off, in fact, crowned Champions as soon as Kawhi Leonard turned his back on the NBA Trophy he delivered to Toronto, declared he has a new home with the Clippers, and engineered the arrival of Paul George. Every analyst from Florida to Foshan in China, Faisalabad in Pakistan and Fontaleza in Italy, failed to see the failure that unraveled before our eyes, as the Clippers finally crashed to the Nuggets, early on Wednesday morning leaving their season in ruins.

But how could they?

Kawhi Leonard had been crowned NBA Finals Most Valuable Player twice; once with the San Antonio Spurs in the United States, then with the Toronto Raptors in Canada, the first man in NBA history to annex that title in two different countries. He had sprinkled the seasons between those two Finals MVPs with selections into All-NBA Teams and All-Defensive Teams; he had a total of nine selections combined in both categories, the stuff of elite players.

The man who the Clippers engineered to be his sidekick, Paul George, might not have any NBA Finals pedigree, but he is no less illustrious. George is a six-time NBA All-Star, has been selected for the All-NBA Team five times, and has been an NBA All-Defensive Team selection four times.

The clout that both brought to the Clippers was meant to; at least, guarantee the franchise a place in the NBA Finals. That would (probably) have been enough – even though a Championship is what many had predicted.

Clippers fans have never woken up to anticipate how their team would fare in a Conference Final; from their days in Buffalo, to their stint in San Diego, until they landed in Los Angeles 36 years ago, these Clippers had never ventured past the Conference semifinals. But the arrival of Kawhi was supposed to change all that.

The 29-year-old had arrived at a tepid San Antonio in 2010, with the Spurs struggling to find their way back to the NBA Finals: between 2003 and 2007, the Spurs had been crowned champions three times, but had found the Lakers, Mavericks and the Suns difficult obstacles to overcome in the years following those dynasty defining victories.

Kawhi’s first year was spent in the usual Spurs mentorship program, in his second year the Spurs lost a Finals they should have won against the Miami Heat, in his third year he took matters into his own hands in the last three games of the Finals and delivered the Spurs a fifth franchise championship, and earned his first Finals MVP. It didn’t take him that long to deliver Toronto from their afflictions – the journey to a championship and a second Finals MVP took only one season. Hence the addition of Paul George to the Clippers was the guarantee that the miracle of cold Toronto would be replicated in the warmer climes of Los Angeles. Alas, the only miracle Clippers fans witnessed was their team, led by their star players – defensive stalwarts – giving up a combined 43-point lead over four games, and crumbling to a 4-3 loss in a series they had led 3-1.

The Clippers gave up a 16-point lead on their way to the loss recorded in Game 5, they were expected to readjust and end the series in Game 6 and they looked to be on the way as they took a 19-point lead midway through the third quarter, only for them to collapse and lose by 13 points. Then talk of ‘ending it right’ surfaced; again the Clippers jumped to a 12-point lead, only to score 33 points in the final quarter, one more than the 32 they scored in the second quarter alone.

If these numbers look ugly at first reading, it gets uglier when it is further analyzed: the pair of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined to shoot a dismal 10-38 in the win or burst Game 7, while missing wide open shots and flinging bad passes, all in the all-important fourth quarter. In fact, neither of the two superstars scored a field goal in that final frame as the Nuggets extended their lead and confirmed the elimination of the Clippers. In fact, it was left to JayMychal Green and Montrezl Harrell to step into the breach as their superstars disappeared without trace.

Kawhi Leonard was so invisible, that in noting the most influential player on the team, statistics-conscious ESPN nominated Patrick Beverly (11 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) as the main man and ignored the 2019 Finals MVP (14 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists). But maybe the fact that the Clippers gave up 21 points with Kawhi on the floor, while they were actually better than the Nuggets by four points with Beverly on the floor, contributed to the nomination. It doesn’t matter anymore.

What must now follow is a fall (the summer is almost over) of mulling; the two Clippers superstars – who barely looked at each other (whether it is animosity or embarrassment, we will find out in the coming days), must find time to come together and talk things over before training camp opens. Both found the Clippers a conducive place to ply their trade because they wanted to be closer to home, thankfully Palmdale (the birthplace of George) is just an hours’ drive from Los Angeles. It will be easy for either to make the commute for the soul-searching, mending fences (if needed) and the planning that must happen before they both have to face their teammates when the new season opens.

What next for the Clippers? Will the franchise turn its back on Doc Rivers, seeing that the coach has already placed himself on the chopping block? For the two superstars, the clock is already counting down; their arrival promised a championship, both have made a habit of fleeing from expectations: Kawhi left the adulation of Toronto, perhaps fearful he’d done his best, just as he did after the one win with San Antonio. George departed the Indiana Pacers with his eyes on the Lakers, both are now (stranded) at the Clippers gasping for breath; any flight from here without a chip, may leave both carrying that lodestone of failure the rest of their careers, no matter what they may manage to achieve elsewhere.

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