NBA playoffs: Clippers’ savvy roster-building around Kawhi Leonard, Paul George pays dividends in Game 5 win

Two summers ago, the Los Angeles Clippers pulled off a franchise-changing coup by signing Kawhi Leonard and trading for Paul George. With two of the best two-way wings in the NBA, they were immediately dubbed a championship contender. Putting a roster together around them was secondary — the hard work was done, and it was just a matter of fine-tuning.

The personnel tweaking took a bit longer than expected, but the Clippers’ impressive 119-11 Game 5 road win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday –with Leonard sitting at home with an injured knee — showcased how the role players that the front office put around George and Leonard have been essential to the team’s recent playoff success, and newfound resilience.

“It was a total team effort. I’m proud of our guys,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said after the win. “We’ve been in these situations before, but guys had to step up and be ready to play. Every guy that played tonight contributed, and that’s a team that we have: Mentally tough, mentally strong and we just keep fighting to the end.”

Last postseason, when the Clippers wrote the most recent chapter in the book of bitter franchise disappointments by blowing a 3-1 second-round lead against the Denver Nuggets, the roster clearly wasn’t right. Whether it was the skill sets, the personalities, the pandemic-induced bubble to finish the year — something was off, and changes needed to be made.

Out went head coach Doc Rivers, Montrezl Harrell, JaMychal Green, Landry Shamet and eventually Lou Williams. In came new coach Ty Lue, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard, DeMarcus Cousins and later Rajon Rondo. Perhaps just as important as the changes were two players that the front office, led by Lawrence Frank and Michael Winger, decided to bring back in free agency: Marcus Morris, whom the Clippers gave up a first-round pick to acquire at the 2020 trade deadline, and Reggie Jackson, who signed with the team after being bought out by the Detroit Pistons last season.

When they were needed the most, the role players had massive contributions on Wednesday night, bolstering a signature performance by George to beat the best regular-season team in the NBA in one of the most hostile road environments in the league. George led the team with 37 points, but Morris’ 25 on 3 for 4 3-point shooting and Jackson’s 22 on 3 for 8 from deep were no less important.

Down the stretch in the fourth quarter, a few key role players had their fingerprints all over the game. Batum, who had wasted away into basketball irrelevance in Charlotte before a buyout allowed him to sign with the Clippers before the season, made a 3-pointer with just under seven minutes left to put the Clippers up by 10 points.

A minute later, when the Jazz had cut the lead to three and a Utah comeback win against the undermanned Clippers seemed all but inevitable, Jackson scored five straight points — a contested corner 3-pointer with five seconds left on the shot clock followed by a reverse layup over the outstretched arms of shot-blocker extraordinaire Rudy Gobert. Jackson played just 33 total minutes in the Clippers’ seven-game series loss to the Nuggets last postseason, yet Frank decided to bring him back on a minimum deal. On Wednesday, he made some of the biggest plays of the Clippers’ postseason.

And then there was perhaps the biggest momentum shift of the night when, just after a Bojan Bogdanovic 3-pointer had cut the Clippers lead back down to four, second-round draft pick Terance Mann, who scored 13 points as a replacement for Leonard in the starting lineup, drove baseline and threw down a massive and-one dunk over Gobert with two and a half minutes left.

“I was just tired of settling. I just wanted to see what I could do,” said Mann, who went 1 for 5 from 3-point range on Wednesday. “Got him on my hip; with a guy like that, all-defensive player in the league, you can’t just go up and try to lay it up. You have to go through him. That’s just what I tried to do.”

In that short stretch of the fourth quarter alone, we saw a veteran who averaged 3.6 points per game last season, a previously injury-plagued guard on a minimum contract, and the 48th overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft make some of the most important plays of the Clippers’ season. All of them also played a large part in holding Jazz All-Star Donovan Mitchell to 21 points on 6 of 19 shooting.

George was brilliant as he took the Clippers home in the remainder of the game, but the performance from the rest of the roster shows that the decisions the front office has made on the fringes over the past two years are paying off. And with Leonard’s status up in the air, they might need a duplicate performance if they’re going to make the first conference finals appearance in franchise history.

“I think with guys being out this season, playing a lot of different combinations, a lot of guys in lot of different positions, that’s really helped us. With Kawhi going down, guys are stepping up — like we had T-Mann playing the five today.” Lue said after the game. “So guys step up, we just plug guys in and we just continue to keep playing. As long as we play the right way, we play together and we have that toughness about us, we’re going to be fine.”

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