2021 Playoffs: West Semifinal | Jazz (1) vs. Clippers (4)

Clippers need Kawhi Leonard, Paul George to seize spotlight from Donovan Mitchell

Kawhi Leonard has the championship trophies and Finals MVP awards. Paul George has the All-NBA credentials. So why are both being outplayed by Donovan Mitchell?

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

By halftime of Game 2, Donovan Mitchell had more total points in the series than Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined.

Kawhi Leonard owns the biggest hands in the game and somehow his fingerprints are missing in this series and for most of the playoffs.

Paul George has every reason to embark on a Playoff Redemption Tour given what happened to him last year — and the year before that, and the year before that — but he hasn’t made it to the stage yet and it’s getting late and people are getting restless.

The Clippers are trailing 0-2 to the Jazz in the second round, just as they were to the Mavericks previously, and much of this is due to another 0-2: Their stars, for the second straight series, are trailing the other star on the other team.

Donovan Mitchell is following Luka Doncic in being a problem for the Clippers, mashing them in Game 1 for the Jazz and then returning Thursday with a performance almost as stellar in Utah’s 117-111 victory. That in and of itself is somewhat understandable. Mitchell in his short time in the NBA has established himself as a player built for spring and summer, when the lights turn bright and his team craves a savior.

Same for Doncic; his style of play, competitive nature and toughness lends itself to another level of basketball, motivating him to rise up right along with the stakes this time of year.

But shouldn’t the Clippers get the same chest-pounding results from Leonard and George, who are supposed to be difference-makers, who are required to take big shots in tense moments rather than the likes of Reggie Jackson and Marcus Morris and … Patrick Beverley?

Kawhi and PG weren’t awful Thursday; they just weren’t awesome. Neither Clipper was the best player on the floor. Neither had what could be described as an oh-wow moment. Neither was a factor in the final few minutes and certainly not the outcome, a defeat which put the Clippers in another hole to start a series.

Leonard was defiantly defended by Bojan Bogdanovic, who stripped him once in a revealing stop late in the fourth, and mostly kept the former two-time Finals MVP quiet when it mattered. The numbers will say 21 points for Leonard, but nobody can recall any that screamed loudly. Plus he had three turnovers and at times seemed out of sync.

Isiah Thomas and Brendan Haywood gush over yet another epic Donovan Mitchell playoff performance.

For a player who load-managed throughout this compressed season, Kawhi has played with only a day’s rest between games since May 28. Is it fair to ask if this “blizzard” of a schedule is catching up to him?

At least he had games of 45 and 41 points the previous round. George, on the other hand, is still waiting for a signature game and stretch. You can make the argument that Leonard is being forced to carry more than his share of a load that was designed to be handled equally between the two.

Instead, George had his second straight subpar shooting game, and for the third straight playoffs is especially struggling to find consistency from deep, connecting on just 32% this postseason.

Again: As a duo, Kawhi and George haven’t cratered; they just haven’t matched the intensity, impact, and pop as Doncic in round one or Mitchell so far in round two.

Mitchell at one point had outscored the Clipper duo by 72-66 through the first six quarters of this series, and for the two games combined has just nine fewer points. But the numbers don’t tell the whole story; Mitchell has made plays, the kind that roust teammates, flip the volume inside the home arena, and knock the wind out of the other team.

Mitchell has been the most prolific scorer in the league over the last two postseasons combined, and more remarkably finished strong on a sore ankle in Game 2. When he wasn’t punishing the Clippers, his supporting cast always seemed to answer with a timely 3-pointer whenever LA mustered enough energy to tighten the score.

That’s what a premier playoff performer is supposed to do, yet in these Clippers playoffs, with the exception of a pair of solid Kawhi efforts, that performer has been on the other team through nine games so far.

The spotlight of suspicion will only grow more intense for George the rest of this series. If you recall, the meat of his playoff troubles can be traced back three years ago coincidently to Utah, when he and Oklahoma City lost in six games to this same Jazz franchise. The next year came Damian Lillard’s epic series-winning basket over George along with his mocking farewell wave. Then last season, when George played poorly throughout the playoffs and came up empty in a Game 7 against the Nuggets, the noise from the audience directed toward him was deafening.

But basketball is funny sometimes. Narratives and perceptions and reputations can flip suddenly if someone takes a sledgehammer to them. What Kawhi and George have, still, is the luxury of time. There’s another game upcoming to create an entirely different conversation.

These two couldn’t prevent the Clippers from falling behind 0-2 again. In order to pull even, they’ll need to do to the Jazz what Mitchell is doing to the Clippers. It’s certainly possible, and at this point, given the sudden sensitivity of the situation they’re in, do they have any other choice?

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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