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Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers May Be the NBA’s New Goliath

After beating the Warriors at their own game on Thursday night, Los Angeles has shown that even without Paul George in the mix, it could be the team to chase this season

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two games into the 2019-20 NBA season, the league’s Goliath looks a little different than in seasons past. He’s bulked up: His shoulders are a bit more rounded, his legs seem a little stronger, his frame is slightly wider. He’s exchanged his gold-and-white uniform for a red-and-blue one. Gone are the smooth crossover 3s that used to define him; now he rules with drives to the basket, unstoppable midrange shots, and lockdown defense. Finesse is no longer in vogue; it’s all about blunt force.

On Thursday night, as the Clippers played their second game of the season against the Warriors, this shift was impossible to mistake. What initially seemed like a competitive game turned into a 141-122 Clippers’ rout, one led by Kawhi Leonard, who helped L.A. pull away during a time of the game the Warriors used to own. For the past five years, Golden State has been known for its infamous third-quarter runs that drown opposing teams in a flood points. This time, though, without Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson on Golden State’s side, Kawhi was the one who took over after halftime.

Early in the third, Leonard drew defenders into his orbit and then dished three straight bullets to Landry Shamet and Patrick Patterson that resulted in three made 3s. Kawhi then put Glenn Robinson on an island, left him no map or compass, and had already drained a midrange jumper by the time Robinson tried to react. A few minutes later, Leonard snagged a rebound, dribbled through Golden State’s defense like he was taking a walk in the park, and banked in a shot while falling down—plus he got an additional foul shot. Soon, through both his playmaking and scoring abilities, Leonard had turned an 11-point halftime lead into a 21-point cushion.

Leonard finished the game with 21 points in 21 minutes and a career-high nine assists—but he didn’t do it alone. Seven Clippers players scored in double digits; the bench posted at least 60 points for the second game in a row; and the win was highlighted by that 46-point third quarter—the third-highest scoring in team history—when the Clippers played like they were all in the same group chat while most of the Warriors seemed like they didn’t even have each other’s numbers.

If Tuesday night’s Clippers’ win over the Lakers seemed like a statement to Los Angeles and a platform to position Kawhi as one of the best players in the league, this one had a different kind of resonance. Non-fairy-tale stories are almost never this neat, and after just one game, it’s not time to say a torch has been passed. But it was impossible to ignore the fact that the Clippers did to the Warriors what the Warriors have been doing to the rest of the league over the last few seasons.

The Western Conference has undergone a shift. Golden State still has Curry and Draymond Green, but the rest of the now nondescript roster (sans Kevon Looney) is still figuring out how to navigate this new, less stellar era—especially on the defensive end, where Green said the Warriors “fucking sucked” on Thursday night. On the flip side, Kawhi’s already found chemistry with his teammates, turning pick-and-rolls into easy buckets and finding the open shooter every time. Behind his quiet leadership and booming play, the Clippers look like a juggernaut—and they still have another card to play in Paul George. After so much talk about how there was no clear favorite heading into this season, it seems like once George finishes rehabbing from his offseason shoulder surgery, that may no longer be the case.

Outside of Leonard and George, the Clippers have a deep roster of effective role players. The team seems to have revived Patrick Patterson and turned him into a knockdown shooting big (he had six 3s on Thursday night and scored 20 points for the first time since 2014). And the Clippers’ old reliable—the two-man combination of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—is picking up where it left off last season, turning defenses into a mosh pit of confusion and carrying a large portion of the scoring load. (Williams’s natural scoring ability, in particular, will be helpful in keeping Kawhi from getting overworked this season—call it Lou Management.) Size could be considered the Clippers’ Achilles’ heel, but they have the nimbleness to overcome that through smaller lineups—or with Ivica Zubac recording an efficient 16 points and 10 rebounds in 18 minutes like he did Thursday.

During the blowout, Patrick Beverley loudly taunted Warriors fans while they exited the Golden State’s new arena. Afterward, when Kawhi was asked how he felt about spoiling the Chase Center opening, he said matter of factly: “I mean, that’s our job.” If this is what it looks like to watch Leonard to go work with his new, deeper, better team, then at least the idea of parity was fun while it lasted.