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Kawhi Returns to Run the Clippers Offense and Run Off the Spurs, 103-97

Kawhi struggled with his shot early, apparently so he could save it all for the fourth quarter.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Clippers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Some games are track meets.

Others are heavyweight slugfests.

For a half, this was a slap fight. Then some splash plays in the third juiced the crowd a bit. In return, the crowd juiced the Clippers a bit. The Spurs hung tough, because they always do. Patrick Beverley got into a scrap, as he likes to do.

A third quarter free throw contest finally turned into a fourth quarter basketball game, and in the end, standing above it all was Kawhi Leonard, who delivered a Superstar performance in the clutch, scoring 38 points to put the Clippers back into the win column with a 103-97 victory over the Spurs.

Peek at the fourth quarter play-by-play log. At 9:55, “Lou Williams makes driving floating jump shot.” At 2:17, “Lou Williams makes driving layup.” Every Clipper basket in between belonged to Kawhi, conjured from a dazzling combination of light-footed wizardry and physical brutality. And that was with the Clippers’ lead closing from nine to four, so you better believe they needed every one of them. Kawhi looked part-Jordan, part-Point God, and yes, I’m exaggerating, but actually not laughably so. He was as good as so much of this game was bad.

And the first 24 minutes of this one were indeed bad, hardly worth recounting. Quality was scarce. Ivica Zubac’s omnipresent defense was a highlight, as was DeMar DeRozan’s quietly efficient scoring (29 points), as also was Montrezl Harrell’s boisterously efficient scoring (24 points). Kawhi, central focus that he was, created open looks but couldn’t finish, struggling to a 5-for-16 shooting start.

Or, perhaps to put it another way, the Clippers converted their first three-pointer with seven minutes remaining. . . in the SECOND quarter. (That three belonged to Landry Shamet, and it was his only make from distance on seven tries.)

The third quarter was when this game began in earnest. The Clippers’ defense, notably more organized than in recent games — although you should know that the Spurs ran few exotic-looking sets — picked up its intensity, signified by a Kawhi steal and dunk that finally animated what had been a subdued audience. Their defensive focus contributed to 18 San Antonio turnovers and hounded past-Clipper-killer LaMarcus Aldridge into a limp five-point night.

On the other end, the Clippers’ ball movement became more purposeful and more incisive as the game wore on. Passes moved less laterally and more outside-in or inside-out. And the passes were accurate, resulting in a season-low 11 turnovers. Credit for the paucity of turnovers also goes to the offensive design, which was Kawhi first, second, and third, with a dash of the effervescent Lou Williams-Montrezl Harrell pick and roll.

In the first half, Kawhi’s inability to shoot meant the offense looked stale. (So too was Lou’s, except he never got it going, recording just 12 points on 19 shot attempts on the night.) Once Kawhi got himself going, though, he was uncontainable. And as he drew more attention, his teammates found more space. They didn’t do much with that space, converting a paltry 19% from deep and 43% overall and allowing Kawhi just a single assist for the game, but it was sufficient to allow Lou and Montrezl to ice the game in the closing minutes.

It wasn’t a runaway win, but given the tired legs (and sore heinies?) they amassed in last night’s drubbing, they should take it. It’s important to prevail in the better half of Kawhi-load managed back-to-backs. Plus, we’ll always have that fourth quarter. (And hopefully many more like it.)

The Clippers return to action on Sunday against the Jazz.