One was the NBA’s best team, by record.
The eye test suggested the other was arguably the farthest from reaching its potential.
It was a recipe for a one-sided result — one that came true, just as few might have predicted.
The Clippers on Monday finally looked like the championship aspirant they expected to be during training camp, rolling through league-leading Boston to a 113-93 victory behind a version of Kawhi Leonard that had yet to be seen to this degree through eight previous appearances.
“How he played was huge,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
To start the season, returning from a season lost to knee surgery, Leonard was limited by rust and an unusual reserve role. Then came knee tightness and a three-week recovery. When he returned, so did an ankle injury. On Monday in Crypto.com Arena, little Boston did bothered Leonard as he scored a season-high 25 points, with nine rebounds and six assists, in 29 minutes, just under his limit.
“Now he’s adjusted, he’s found his rhythm and you’ll see him more comfortable on the court,” teammate Paul George said.
Despite all of Boston’s defensive length anchored by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Leonard probed with his dribble and made 10 of 12 shots, looking again like the two-time NBA Finals most valuable player who can control the pace of the game. Leonard came to the bench at times Monday asking teammates to play faster, Lue said, but this early in his comeback, he said he “can’t rush” his return to playing without a minutes restriction.
“Twenty-eight minutes, 30 minutes is a lot of minutes still,” Leonard said. “Got to just do what I can and win these basketball games.”
The Clippers (16-13) have won with more unexpected comebacks, scored more effortlessly in other games, and shut down opponents using small-ball lineups before — only two days earlier, in fact, when they surrendered only 23 points in the final 17 minutes against Washington.
But none of those opponents carried the caliber of Boston, which fell to 21-7 — even if the Celtics were missing big men Robert Williams and Al Horford, who vastly change their rim protection and rolling down low. Boston had never scored fewer than 102 points this season until the Clippers blitzed defenders at Tatum to force passes and attacked matchups they wanted.
“We did pretty much everything we wanted to do from a game-plan standpoint,” said George, who scored 26 points on eight-for-22 shooting to help the Clippers hold their own in a must-see matchup of two of the NBA’s top all-around duos, facing Boston’s Brown and Tatum, an MVP favorite.
When Brown missed two free throws with seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, he had been limited to 16 points while making one of six three-pointers — and one of four free throws. He finished with 21 and Tatum had to work hard for his 20 points on 20 shots.
Since Leonard and George returned from injury one week earlier in Charlotte, they had played nearly all of their minutes together in Lue’s attempt to make up for lost continuity. When one All-Star checked out, the other was typically right behind walking to a courtside chair. Against Boston, Lue changed tactics: When George checked out unusually early in the first quarter, after six minutes, Leonard stayed in another four minutes. And this time, when it was Leonard’s time to check out after 10 first-quarter minutes, it was George who replaced him thanks to his breather.
Forced partly by foul trouble as center Ivica Zubac added a third before halftime, the Clippers closed much of the first half with a kind of small lineup that clinched a win Saturday in Washington. With wings and guards surrounding the duo of George and Leonard for nearly the final six minutes of the first half, the Clippers outscored Boston by eight to lead 56-47 at halftime.
When Zubac then picked up his fifth foul with five minutes remaining in the third quarter, the Clippers stayed small instead of inserting backup center Moses Brown or rookie forward Moussa Diabate. Lue said he is drawn to lineups with guard Luke Kennard surrounded by four wings because of the shooting capability and the rebounding of wings such as Leonard and George.
It was exactly the lineup the Clippers turned to to protect what grew to a 16-point lead after three quarters and 24 with 6:44 to play.
Lue reiterated Monday that Norman Powell, who hasn’t played since Nov. 29, is taking part in on-court workouts but doesn’t have a timetable for his return. Before his groin injury, Powell had scored 17.1 points per game while making 50% of his shots and 46% of his three-pointers.
This, then, was not the Clippers at their full strength. But the eye test looked like it.