EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Clippers Game 3 preview, Pt. 2: Impact of Kawhi Leonard’s injury

Apr 20, 2023, 3:22 PM

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers handles the ball during the first half Game One of the Western ...

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers handles the ball during the first half Game One of the Western Conference First Round Playoffs against the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center on April 16, 2023 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — It is hard to properly state the massive two-way force Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard was through two games against the Phoenix Suns. His absence for Thursday’s Game 3 due to a knee injury first reported by ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk completely changes the dynamic of the first-round series going forward.

That’s not only coming from an impact perspective but a scheme perspective as well. For a Los Angeles team also without Paul George, Leonard was pretty much everything on both ends. He was the best player on the floor through two games and “Playoff Kawhi’s” return started having this 1-1 series trending more towards an absolute grind and maybe even a toss-up after Phoenix was heavily favored coming in.

Offensively, Leonard was the hub and the only Clipper that could trigger Phoenix’s pressure points. The Suns already made big-time changes to their coverage in Game 2, doubling Leonard through traps when they could rotate on drives and even deploying more aggressive ball screen defense with Deandre Ayton meeting him at the level of the screen, a rarity for them. Even after those adjustments and on a bum knee, Leonard still managed 31 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

Defensively, Leonard jumbled everything up immediately in Game 1 when he was matched up on Ayton in an effort to either 1) jam up the ball screens Ayton was setting or 2) force Phoenix to find a screener elsewhere. The Suns chose the latter with Torrey Craig, a decision to also get Clippers center Ivica Zubac still prominently involved. Leonard profiled as the only healthy Clipper capable of matching up with Kevin Durant coming into the series and that remained to be the case.

Los Angeles becomes severe underdogs in Game 3, and given that the fourth comes on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. local time, it could prove to really turn the tide even if this is more of a day-to-day outlook for Leonard. Game 5, for what it’s worth, is on Tuesday after the first and only two-day break of the series schedule.

The numbers for the Clippers this season without Leonard and George are not pretty.

But don’t forget what this Clippers team is, stocked with veterans able to execute head coach Ty Lue’s various tweaks on the fly. They are still filled with shooting on offense and versatility on defense.

Someone will need to take on the playmaking burden offensively. Russell Westbrook, who has been Los Angeles’ second-best player through two games, is equipped for the job when it comes to putting pressure on a defense and making the right pass. Phoenix, however, is going to continue playing off him and especially in this circumstance will be more than OK with letting Westbrook beat them as a scorer. How the Suns lose is letting him beat them as a passer.

Norman Powell is one of the better sixth men in the league but is not known for his playmaking. Powell, though, was finding some driving lanes in Game 2 and needs to start ball rotations if he does again.

The same goes for Eric Gordon, who is the only other Clipper besides Westbrook to break the 15-point threshold in this series. He’s got some gusto going downhill as well but it’s a part of his game that has faded in with the Clippers. Over his career, Gordon is shooting 48.5% on 2s with 6.5 attempts a night, as well as 3.5 free throw attempts per game. But he’s attempting career-low 2s (2.9 2PA/G) and free throws (1.7 FTA/G) in L.A.

The Clippers will need more of this guy.

Los Angeles’ much-discussed depth coming in has underwhelmed from a production standpoint but Westbrook is the only shooter the Suns should feel alright about leaving open. And it’s more about the likes of Gordon, Powell and Nic Batum being the types of sharpshooters the Suns cannot leave open.

The Clippers shot 34.4% from 3-point range in the first two games after knocking down 39% of ’em with Westbrook in the last 21 contests of the regular season. They are more than capable of hitting 18-plus and stealing a game primarily off that.

And with Leonard out, a wing like Robert Covington (39.7% on 3s) or Marcus Morris Sr. (36.4%) enters the fray with a competent shot from distance as well.

Speaking of those two, they were not playing for a reason but they have the resumes to come in and be positive contributors still. Morris was really good for L.A. in the 2021 Western Conference Finals and was a starter for three straight seasons before getting moved out of the rotation two weeks ago. Covington was previously All-Defense earlier in his career and has always been a high-IQ player.

Both guys know the details in and out. The Clippers could use either as a small-ball 5 as well to introduce the series’ latest wrinkle, if they so choose. They will likely be one of the bodies used on Durant, who surely draws even more double-teams now.

All of this is to say they have options, and more importantly, possess the experience to be ready for any slight opportunity Phoenix gives them if it sleepwalks through portions of this time Leonard sits.

Lue’s fabled mid-series adjustments, though, have faced no taller task than this one.

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