The Clippers have ripped the jumpsuit off their back. After two years of undeserved bravery, an epic playoff collapse and a never-ending series of 3-1 pranks, the Clippers advanced to the second round on Sunday, avoiding an organizational crisis point in the process. We shouldn’t exactly be throwing Los Angeles into a parade for advancing past a rag-tag Mavericks team other than Luka Dončić, but considering the aftermath of a first round outing, Sunday’s win was one of the biggest in the season. franchise history.
The stakes for Los Angeles heading into 2020-21 were clear as soon as Kawhi Leonard and Co. left the NBA bubble last season. An embarrassing Game 7 loss to the Nuggets sent the Clippers packing after the second round, blowing up an alleged Los Angeles battle in the process. Leonard can cancel his contract after this summer and enter free agency. The Clippers don’t control their own first-round pick until 2026. If this year’s playoffs present another disappointing outing, the future for Los Angeles could quickly turn bleak.
We’ll keep the existential fear for now following Sunday’s 126-111 win in Game 7. Leonard took over the game in the fourth quarter when he finished the night with 28 points, nine assists, four steals and zero turnovers. and his increased focus on Luka Dončić in the second half helped curb the Slovenian sensation. The Jazz looms in the second round, where a rabid crowd and a jarringly deep roster await. The Clippers may not advance to their first conference final in franchise history before Leonard’s free agency, although Sunday’s comeback victory showed the mettle and determination of this team. An offseason of re-equipping and reflecting dividends paid through Round 1 of the postseason.
Los Angeles didn’t necessarily consider an alteration to their superstar duo after last year’s bubble burst, though it still underwent a major transformation during the offseason. Doc Rivers was replaced by Tyronn Lue. Nic Batum and Luke Kennard were added as free agents. Montrezl Harrell was exiled across the hall from the Staples Center, and Lou Williams was traded for Rajon Rondo. The list of moves wasn’t perfect, especially regarding Kennard’s contract, but Los Angeles’ moves to the trade deadline may be what keeps Leonard in town for much of the 2020s.
Game 7 served as the clearest endorsement of Lawrence Frank’s roster building around Leonard and Paul George. Kennard and second-year forward Terance Mann combined for 24 points Sunday. Marcus Morris scored 23 points, providing a huge spark after signing a $ 64 million contract during the offseason. Batum finished with 11 points and five steals, and while it was a quiet day for Rondo, it still provided a huge spark when Los Angeles tied the series in Dallas after falling to a 2-0 hole. This is still a team that lives and dies for all three. Your nightly mileage from Morris, Kennard, and Reggie Jackson may vary. But unlike last year, this is a team with a true identity and a true sense of cohesion. Less than a year after an abject disaster, the Clippers arguably enter the second round as the Western Conference favorites.
Los Angeles wasn’t exactly in cruise control in Sunday’s win despite the final score. Dallas led until the middle of the third quarter, and for much of the first half, it looked like we were heading towards a historic performance from Dončić. But the difference in the two lists became more and more apparent as the second half progressed. Kristaps Porzingis is now effectively an oversized floor spacer. Josh Richardson did not exist Sunday after arriving this offseason in a Seth Curry trade. Boban Marjanovic was arguably Dallas’ second-best player in Game 7, which is less a compliment from the friendly giant than an accusation of his team’s roster building. Dončić is the brightest young star in the NBA. You need to have a better team around you to compete for the Finals.
We’ve been in Dončić’s career for three years now, one that, frankly, has few historical parallels when he closes the book on his 22-year stint. Dončić was the fugitive rookie of the year in 2018-19. He nearly averaged a triple-double last season. He limped out of the gate this year, though he still posted his most efficient shooting season to date along with 27.7 points per game. LeBron James and perhaps Kevin Durant are the only fair points of comparison this century, and like James, Dončić has already recorded a handful of dominant playoff performances through the third year. There is no player who prefers to build a team around 2021-22. Hopefully Dončić can find the help he needs in Dallas rather than needing a new organization to deliver a title.
Dončić will have to wait at least one more year to experience his first taste of playoff basketball after the first round. As for his role as a superstar in this series, the story could wait. Leonard shut out LeBron James and the Heat en route to Finals MVP in 2014, and led a Raptors franchise to the championship half a decade later. Can Leonard clinch a third Finals MVP with the most damned organization in the NBA? That possibility is firmly in play after escaping from Dončić and the Mavericks. Leonard is a great player historically at the peak of his powers. Now, with a reformed supporting cast, he might close the deal with a third team in 2021.
More coverage of the NBA playoffs:
• Where do the Lakers go from here?
• Brooklyn is scarier than anyone imagined
• Devin Booker proves he’s ready to be a playoff superstar
• No one should blame Damian Lillard if he asks for a trade
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.