June 20, 2024

Three weeks before the Clippers began their December transformation into the NBA’s hottest team, they were leaving Dallas as perhaps its most ill-fitting.

Their stars were struggling to find their roles. Their rotations were a mix-and-match experiment. And their coach remarked that the last three quarters of the loss, their fourth consecutive, looked like “the worst that you can be.” Tyronn Lue’s comment, in a tone of gallows humor, made its way around the internet within minutes.

Only a fraction heard what he said next.

“[Opponents] better take advantage of it now,” Lue said, before walking back to the locker room on Nov. 10. “We’ll be all right.”

More than one-quarter of the way through the schedule and with a return trip to Dallas arriving Wednesday, the Clippers (16-10) are more than all right — unbeaten in December, with an eight-game winning streak that will tie for the league’s longest of the season with another win Wednesday. They have done so by dispelling concerns about the durability of their brittle roster and quieting jokes about how the pieces of the new-look roster would fit.

Point guard James Harden raised eyebrows when he announced himself as an offensive “system” upon his trade, yet he walked on figurative eggshells after his arrival via trade, deferring to teammates who’d spent years within Lue’s offense. Gradually, the Clippers have intertwined their system to Harden, and it has allowed him to return to being one of the league’s best decision-makers with the ball in his hands. In Monday’s win at Indiana, he scored 15 consecutive fourth-quarter points and celebrated his sixth three-pointer of the quarter with a sideline snow angel as teammates howled along the bench.

Center Ivica Zubac used to be unsure how to navigate the pick and rolls that are central to Harden’s effectiveness; now, after more than a month of post-practice sessions together, Zubac has scored in double figures in 13 of his last 14 games while Harden ranks again among the league’s best at generating points from pick and rolls.

The starting lineup used to be a mishmash of overlapping or redundant skillsets; since Terance Mann joined Nov. 17, moving Russell Westbrook to the bench, the new starters are outscoring opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions while Westbrook has often produced controlled contributions in his condensed minutes, averaging 5.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists against just 1.6 turnovers in 20 minutes per game since becoming a reserve.

Evidence of the Clippers’ turnaround goes far beyond those examples. But what underpins it all is the resurgence of Kawhi Leonard.

Since the change to the starting lineup Nov. 17, Leonard has averaged 26.4 points, making 45% of his three-pointers, in his last 16 games. During the winning streak, those averages have increased to 29.3 points and 54.8% shooting beyond the arc, while turning the ball over just 1.8 times in 35 minutes per game. He was asked Saturday after a win against New York whether this was the best stretch of his career.

“If you want to put in numbers-wise,” Leonard said. “But I’m more focused on something bigger than just a stretch.”

Yet the numbers are hard to ignore. He has yet to miss a game, which was no given after his season-ending knee injury in April.

As of Monday, Synergy Sports ranked him the most efficient scorer among players who use the highest-volume of possessions. But it isn’t quantity but quality that stands out. In his first three seasons, Leonard touched the ball about 60 times per game, the offense flowing through him on nearly every possession he played.

Since Harden’s Nov. 6 debut, Leonard has averaged about 10 fewer touches per game. After a feeling-out period where Leonard, as well as other teammates, appeared supremely out of rhythm while learning how to mesh together, Leonard has turned into the NBA’s most efficient scorer in the month of December, coinciding with the start of the team’s winning streak.

Of the 282 players averaging at least 20 touches per game this month, no one has been more efficient at turning them into points than Leonard, whose .560 points per touch average in that span leads the league. Such rankings are often dominated by big men who work closer to the basket, not wings. But Leonard has been more productive than even reigning MVP Joel Embiid (.542 points per touch), or Grizzlies big man Jaren Jackson Jr. (.516). In a sign of how vastly the Clippers’ offense has rebounded, reserve wing Norman Powell stands second behind Leonard, averaging .553 points per touch.

The Clippers always believed Leonard could score like this. But “just defensively what he’s being able to do is incredible,” Lue said. Leonard is now guarding opponents’ best players far more often this early in the season than in the past, when the Clippers preferred to ramp up his defensive workload as the postseason approached. Not anymore.

“ ‘Man, y’all can put me on the best players more,’ ” Leonard told Lue, in the coach’s recollection.

After a late-November rout in Sacramento that Lue called the “blueprint” for how the team could play, co-star Paul George said the previous weeks had been spent trying “to figure out who’s the ‘new you’ in that system,’ ” George said. “And that went for all of us. We all were trying to find that.”

If this is the new Leonard, it looks an awful lot like the old, overpowering one the Clippers hinged their title ambitions to four years ago.

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