- ESPN.com NBA writer since 2010
- Covered Cleveland Cavs for seven years
- Author of two books
Kawhi Leonard’s middle finger already had a storied history before it was the lone instrument used to block a power dunk attempt by Jamal Murray on Monday night.
That finger is engraved on the underside of Leonard’s Toronto Raptors’ championship ring, a piece of symbolism that needs no interpretation. And there’s the federal case, literally. Nike won a lawsuit over a logo dispute with the middle digit playing a naturally central role.
As referees checked a replay to adjust the shot clock after the rejection with 1:46 left and the LA Clippers up six points on their way to an important 113-107 Game 3 victory over the Denver Nuggets, the Clippers bench reacted to the replay. In measures of disbelief, awe and amusement they mimicked the preposterous play.
“I was side help, so I stepped up and decided to contest the shot. And I seen at the end he was gonna try to dunk and just, you know, reached and tried to block the shot,” Leonard said. “You know, I ended up getting a block.”
That is an accurate description of what occurred.
“That’s an extra long middle finger,” Paul George said with a little more emotion. “It kept growing or something.”
It is in moments like these where everyone is reminded just how “worth it” a player liked Leonard is. It’s why the Raptors let him use their jet to shuttle back-and-forth to San Diego as he pondered re-signing. It’s why the Clippers hired his preferred assistant coach. It’s why accommodations are made for his every desire from trainers to barbers and, most especially, to protect his knee.
The Clippers dreamed of nights like this as they stalked Leonard as he headed toward free agency. And why they ultimately paid such a steep price to trade for George to ensure signing him.
It might have seemed like a relatively pedestrian evening for an All-Star of Leonard’s caliber. A below average 23 points with an otherwise nice but not overwhelming line of 14 rebounds, six assists and two blocks.
In truth, it was more George’s night to get attention as he had one of those hot shooting games he occasionally delivers as he nailed 12-of-18 attempts to score 32 points. He was also a huge point-of-attack defender on Murray, who wheezed to just 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Murray was 0-of-6 when George was his primary defender per ESPN Stats and Information tracking.
But there was a reason why George grabbed Leonard’s shoulders and squeezed them in appreciation as they left the floor. Even on a day when he was great, George couldn’t have won without Leonard.
In the second quarter, with the Nuggets still feeding off the energy from their impressive Game 2 victory, they built a 12-point lead. But Leonard scored six straight points to switch the momentum.
In the fourth quarter he tied the game on a free throw, gave the Clippers the lead on a brilliant bounce pass to Ivica Zubac, extended the lead on one of his stepback mid-range jumpers and then secured two rebounds and the block to help bring it home.
“It’s not about me scoring,” Leonard said. “I had to be a playmaker.”
The Nuggets’ offense flowed throughout the night despite Murray’s struggles, but Leonard led the charge that turned it off in the fourth. Denver shot just 7-of-22 down the stretch and were 1-of-7 with Leonard and George as the primary defenders in the fourth.
Leonard has dozens of these types of games on his playoff resume — when he puts the opponent in a sleeper hold and wrestles them down. He’s got one of the highest personal playoff winning percentages in league history at .658 for a reason.
What he excels at, those boldface and sublime defensive plays, those clutch baskets over outstretched arms and his ability to stay flat emotionally even in extreme circumstances, just balloons in value in the postseason setting.
The Clippers are still trying to find their footing to a degree. Coach Doc Rivers lamented that they allowed the Nuggets to get 19 more shots — a product of excessive turnovers — and for giving up three baskets off routine side out-of-bounds plays. George has mostly recovered after a miserable stretch in the first round, but bench duo Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are fighting off slumps.
They are not yet showing their potential championship level and they’re going to need to because the other three teams still alive in the Western Conference are quite dangerous. But they certainly do have a championship player in Leonard, and wow does that make a difference when it counts.
“It’s a team effort,” Leonard said. “You can’t win a basketball game with just one player.”
That’s true but, then again, it depends on the player.
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