Taking the measure of an on-ball defender is not always the easiest thing to do, since individual defensive stats are notoriously noisy and modern NBA defenses are more about the coordination between all five members than their individual talent levels. You simply have to watch the games. In their dominant series-evening Game 4 win against the Utah Jazz, the whole Clippers defense hit a new peak, thanks partially to the critical juice shortages caused by Mike Conley’s absence. At the center of this impressive team performance was Kawhi Leonard, recently regarded as the best individual defender in the game. It’s been fair to question how firmly he’s held onto that title, or whether he still deserves it, especially after he spent so much of the Mavericks series away from Luka Doncic. Are you even trying to win if your all-world defensive stopper is guarding, say, Tim Hardaway Jr. for the bulk of a game?
Leonard typifies the Clippers’ odd combination of undeniable talent and extremely sour vibes. He’s as known for dispatching opponents with a mechanistic indifference as he is for sitting games here and there and floating through a handful more. When he locks in, everything changes. It’s not all that simple, but if the defining challenge for the Clippers is trying hard and giving a shit, Leonard’s fervency goes a long way to determining his team’s fate. In Game 4, Leonard was his old omnipotent self, fighting through screens, erasing drives to the hole, and making plays with a combination of balance and physical force that you don’t see any other wing defender make. He is now fully locked in, which should terrify the Jazz.
The Clippers had Game 4 won halfway through the second quarter, when they amassed a 27-point lead and held Utah to 24 points in 18 minutes. This was a visibly different team than the one that slept through two seemingly disastrous losses to kick off the Dallas series. That version of the Clips would run a nice little set out of a timeout or after a stoppage, only to lapse into the most dour possible one-on-one nonsense for quarters at a time. They’re the rare team that actually works quite well when their two superstars can dip into their bag of tricks and try to cook their defender, but that’s still not the fully realized version of the team. The better version looks a lot like this, where they actually pass the dang ball and leverage out a bunch of little matchup quirks to manufacture a wide-open three-pointer.
Leonard is never going to be a good shot manufactory like LeBron James, Doncic, or Trae Young. He’s probably the least natural wing playmaker on the perennial All-NBA team, though he makes up for it with slick shotmaking. Sometimes, that hurts him when he settles for less than ideal jumpers or, worse, gives the rock to Marcus Morris way more than is advised. A locked-in Leonard is much more determined to seek out and punish mismatches, and the Clippers, who were the best three-point shooting team in the league this season, get way more clean looks when dribble penetration opens up defenses and forces rotations. The small lineup that killed the Mavericks and is starting to kill the Jazz is very adept at forcing big men into space. Sometimes, they cook Rudy Gobert, despite his best efforts. Sometimes, Kawhi Leonard strikes like a meteor. (Another two signs that he’s fully zeroed in right now: he openly didn’t give a shit about the dunk, and also said he “doesn’t care about the Western Conference Finals.”)
The reason why the theoretically best version of the Clippers looks like an obvious championship team is that Leonard and Paul George can win most one-on-one matchups on both ends of the court, and the team defense is good enough to force opponents into those sorts of matchups. The Jazz, in this sense, are their opposite. Donovan Mitchell is an undeniable star with a habit of taking games over, though they earned the Western Conference’s top seed by running a smooth spread offense that consistently created open threes and anchoring their defense around Gobert. If the Clippers can swarm away a great deal of the Jazz’s offensive edge, then Utah has to send Mitchell at Leonard. If Utah continues to run Gobert at the small lineup, they can make him dance on the perimeter. Theoretically, the Clippers can solve all of the problems that the Jazz can throw at them. It seems like Leonard is finally ready to start doing that.