At first, the Clippers relied on the individual offensive talents of Leonard and fellow proven playmakers on the roster. The Clippers now use smooth passing and organized floor spacing between players to work as one unit.
Leonard leads that attack, which forces opposing defenses to shift their focus away from him as the Clippers’ primary scorer.
“Now, we have taken a lot of pressure off them with the movement, and Kawhi is scoring easier and more efficiently because everyone knows where to be.”
The Clippers will utilize that strategy Saturday when they play the Timberwolves in Minnesota at 8 p.m. EST.
The four-time All-Star joined the Clippers in July as a free agent after helping the Toronto Raptors win their first NBA Finals in franchise history. The Clippers also added George, via trade, to form one of the most formidable lineups in the Western Conference.
Leonard — known for his intensity and stoic demeanor — and George did not practice or participate much in the team’s preseason. Despite the early absences, Leonard’s intensity spread through the team from the tip-off of his first game appearance, Rivers said.
“It was in Game 1,” Rivers said. “I don’t want to call it a throwaway, but we really did have a throwaway preseason and training camp because none of our guys were actually in training camp or preseason.
“Then, in Game 1, one you saw the [Leonard’s] intensity. It was a different level. Our guys saw it, too.”
The Clippers (36-15) started the season 3-2. They smoldered in-mid November, going on a seven-game winning streak. They now are led by a surging Leonard, who has morphed his skill set in the last three years while playing for three different teams.
“I think the way I approach the game, it’s natural for me just wanting to win,” Leonard said of his intensity. “I guess if I come in, guys can see that [intensity] and it makes them want to lock in a little bit more and match my competitive nature.”
The three phases of Kawhi
Leonard, 28, entered the league as the No. 15 overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. The San Antonio Spurs plucked the 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward out of San Diego State.
Leonard emerged as a feisty defensive dynamo, with a raw offensive outlook. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich helped craft him into an offensive force, lifting his scoring average to more than 25 points per game and leading the team to win the 2013-2014 NBA Finals against LeBron James’ Miami Heat.
“He just keeps improving,” Rivers said. “When he first got to San Antonio, he was more of a defensive player. Then he quickly became their best offensive player. When he got to Toronto, that was the first team really where he was the go-to guy.
“What he started doing in playoffs last year, not only as a scorer, but as a passer … he brought that with him [to the Clippers]. We use him as a facilitator a lot because he gets so much attention. He’s a willing passer.”
Leonard is averaging a career-high 5.2 assists per game, along with a career-high 27.4 points per game. Part of the reason for the statistical surge is because he can recognize when defenses strategize to take away his shots. He uses that approach to his advantage, luring defenders before finding his teammates for open shots. But when Leonard sees a clear lane to the basket, he is in attack mode.
How to play around Kawhi
“We have kind of figured out how to play around him and with him in our system,” Rivers said of Leonard. “We’ve had enough time with our early offense where you can see it coming together and the motion and movement [of the offense].”
Rivers said he talks to Kawhi a lot on and off the court. The veteran coach said frequently speaking to his team’s main scorers isn’t optional. Those talks are a necessity for having a successful offense.
Rivers watched a lot of footage of Leonard from his time in San Antonio and Toronto before the All-Star joined the Clippers, trying to find out how to put Leonard in the best position to be successful.
Leonard and George get most of the headlines, but the Clippers also need their role players to complete their assignments. Leonard’s resume includes championships at every stop, and his contagious intensity has the other Clippers believing they can reach the pinnacle of the NBA if they follow their new teammate’s path.
The Clippers are 8-2 in their last 10 games and are in second place in the Western Conference.
“I think everyone’s mentality and attitude has been focused on one thing since we all arrived here in September,” Clippers veteran Patrick Patterson said.
“Gradually, we are trying to do everything necessary to achieve our goal [of winning a championship] on and off the court … striving for that one goal. We are trying to get better every single practice and every single game.
“But of course, it starts with Kawhi and starts with Paul and bleeds down to everyone else.”