LOS ANGELES – For the third time in a row, the basketball gods have robbed everyone of what was supposed to be another head-to-head matchup for the history books. Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns took a 3-1 series lead over the Kawhi Leonard-less Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night, with a gentleman’s sweep likely on deck Tuesday.
Kawhi Leonard missed his second straight game with a sprained right knee, and with Paul George already nursing a similar injury, the Clippers needed a near-perfect game to tie the series up at 2-2.
Durant scored an effortless 31 points to go along with 11 rebounds and six assist in the 112-100 victory. Leonard, who scored 38 points in Game 1, suffered the knee injury that night, but played through it in Game 2 when he shouldn’t have. The result was Leonard aggravating the injury to the point where the medical staff would not clear him to play. As of Saturday night, there’s reportedly still swelling in Kawhi Leonard’s knee, and he’s likely going to miss more time if the Clippers were to miraculously come back to defeat the Suns.
After the Game 4 win, Durant spoke about the absence of Leonard in what should’ve been another incredible playoff showdown. Including this 2023 postseason, the last three head-to-heads have been affected by injuries.
“I’m more disappointed that Kawhi is injured again moreso than the matchup,” Kevin Durant said of Kawhi Leonard. “Obviously, that’s always fun playing against an all-time great. I don’t know Kawhi that well, but he seems like he loves the game, loves to play, he just loves to hoop on this stage, especially around the playoffs. I’m more disappointed for him that he’s not doing what he loves. But it’s also fun getting a chance to compete against him. Well not fun, it’s a challenge getting a chance to compete against someone like Kawhi. I hope he gets back out there soon. I hope him and PG get back healthy soon.”
When asked why exactly it isn’t fun to play against Kawhi Leonard, Durant couldn’t help but chuckle.
“I mean, sh*t you’ve seen how he plays,” Kevin Durant added with a laugh. “He’s tough. You gotta be ready every possession. It’s nerve-wracking is the word I would use.”
Kevin Durant: “I’m more disappointed that Kawhi is injured again… It’s also fun getting a chance to compete against him. Well not fun, it’s a challenge.”
Me: “Why isn’t it fun?”
KD: I mean, you’ve seen how he plays. He’s tough. It’s nerve-wracking. pic.twitter.com/BdJfIXDeV7
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) April 23, 2023
Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard have faced off against one another six times in the postseason, including this one between the Clippers and Suns.
The first meeting was in 2012, when the Oklahoma City Thunder defeated San Antonio Spurs in Leonard’s rookie year. The Spurs took a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals before dropping four games in a row to the Thunder, who went on to lose the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat in five games.
The second meeting was in 2014, when the Spurs defeated the Thunder defeated the Thunder in six games of the Western Conference Finals. San Antonio would go on to beat the Miami Heat in five games, with Leonard winning his first NBA Finals MVP.
The third meeting was in 2016, when Kevin Durant’s Thunder defeating Kawhi Leonard’s Spurs in six games. San Antonio took a 2-1 series lead, but dropped three straight games to OKC. Durant and the Thunder ended up blowing a 3-1 lead to the Golden State Warriors in what was Durant’s final season with Oklahoma City.
The two met the following postseason in 2017, their fourth run in. The Spurs reached the Western Conference Finals and looked in prime position to upset Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and the Warriors. Unfortunately, Zaza Pachulia pulled the infamous slide under his feet while he was landing on a baseline fadeaway and single-handedly caused him to miss the remainder of the series due to an ankle sprain.
In 2019, Kevin Durant missed the first four games of the NBA Finals, and the previous five, due to a calf strain. He clearly shouldn’t have returned, but with the Warriors down 3-1 in the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant came back for Game 5 and scored 11 points. Unfortunately, Durant aggravated the injury and tore his Achilles early in the second quarter having played 11 minutes and 57 seconds. Kawhi Leonard’s Raptors went on to the win the NBA Championship in six games.
Now in 2023, what was supposed to be their sixth postseason head-to-head matchup will, for the third time in a row, be cut short due to injury. With Durant and the Suns up 3-1 headed back home and Kawhi Leonard’s knee nowhere near the shape it needs to be for him to win, this one is likely a wrap too.
2012 — Durant wins series 4-2
2014 — Kawhi wins series 4-2
2016 — Durant wins series 4-2
2017 — Kawhi injury, Durant wins series 4-0
2019 — Durant injury, Kawhi wins series 4-2
2023 — ???
If this series ends up being a five-game series, that’s 33 games that could’ve been played between one another.
Kawhi Leonard didn’t come into the league with the same expectations or skill level as a guy like Kevin Durant. Durant came in as an all-around scorer, but quickly added to other parts of his game.
“Coming into the league, my foot was on the gas to score every time I touched the ball,” said Durant. “And in the NBA, when teams are scouting you and you’re playing so many games, you’ve got to switch up your attack, so as I got older in the league, you see different types of defenses and you learn how to play the game. I learned how to play the game from different angles, different positions.
With Kawhi Leonard, development and work ethic played a tremendous part in his transformation from a solid defender and scorer to a two-way superstar with multiple NBA Finals MVP’s.
“Getting older in the league, getting more comfortable, you just get more responsibility. And I think that’s what the name of Kawhi’s career has been. Development. I think that’s what a lot of people look at, how he came into the league and where he is now, you wouldn’t expect him to be a superstar like he is when he came in, so for him to develop his game and develop his mindset, to be this player he is today, it speaks volumes to his work ethic and his love for the game.”
Coming off a 16-month absence due to an ACL tear, a return to the postseason and a chance at an NBA Championship for the Clippers is everything Kawhi Leonard had been playing for. He was also looking forward to the matchup with Kevin Durant.
“He’s a great player,” Leonard told ClutchPoints before the series tipped off. “These are the fun parts of it. Just going out there, getting to compete against a guy like him that’s been doing it year after year.
“That’s what it’s about, how he gets to his spots, shooting over guys, two hands throughout his whole career, and it’s very impressive. Like I said, year after year, he’s doing it, and he’s doing it at a high percentage. Yeah, both ways, left, right, shooting over everybody.”
Kawhi Leonard on facing Kevin Durant:
“He’s a great player. These are the fun parts of it, just going out there and competing against a guy like him that’s been doing it year after year. Everybody’s gonna have to take the challenge.”
— Tomer Azarly (@TomerAzarly) April 14, 2023
Durant and the Suns now will look to close out the Clippers on Tuesday night in Phoenix. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are both very unlikely to play in that game due to their respective sprained right knees.
“You prepare for this time of the year all season, so it’s just frustrating,” Kevin Durant explained. “Some stuff that you wish you had more control over. It’s just a tough situation. You want to be out there with your teammates, you want to grind at this part of the year. You feel like you’re letting a lot of people down that spent their hard-earned money to see you do what you do. The organization. There’s a lot on your mind at that time. You just try to focus on rehabbing and getting better, getting out there as quickly as possible.”
At this point in his career, it’s fair to question what the future has in store for Kawhi Leonard. Can the Clippers’ star stay healthy enough to handle an 82-game season and a postseason? Will he need to be almost managed every year of his career in order to be fresh for the postseason?
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