The Utah Jazz had a big question to answer as they entered their Western Conference semifinal series with the Los Angeles Clippers in the 2021 NBA Playoffs: Who would guard Kawhi Leonard? Utah finished with the league’s No. 3 defense in the regular season behind elite rim protection from Rudy Gobert, but their roster lacked a big wing who was both quick and physical enough to matchup with Leonard.
The Jazz defense did well to hold Leonard below his season average in Game 1 and Game 2 of the series as they stole a pair of victories on their home court. Leonard would finally find his groove in Game 3, erupting for 34 points as the Clippers earned their first win of the series in blowout fashion. As Kawhi and the Clippers opened up another big lead in Game 4, Leonard reminded Utah what they were so worried about entering the matchup.
Late in the first half, Leonard drove past Royce O’Neale and uncorked a poster dunk on Derrick Favors that feels like one of the best dunks of the playoffs so far. Kawhi is just too big and too strong to be stopped at the point of attack by Utah’s defenders, and he’s still able to get up for a big slam.
KAWHI LEONARD OH MY! #NBAPlayoffs on TNT pic.twitter.com/eTfR1uW1ka— NBA (@NBA) June 15, 2021
The Clippers went on to win, 118-104, to tie the series at 2-2. Leonard finished with 31 points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field, but left the game late in the fourth quarter with an apparent knee issue.
While Leonard has mostly been known as a mid-range assassin in recent years, he has shown he can still get up in the playoffs. Who could forget Kawhi’s middle finger block of a Jamal Murray dunk last year in the bubble?
He also put Maxi Kleber through the rim during LA’s first round classic with the Dallas Mavericks:
The Jazz finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA, but it was always going to be hard for them against the Clippers because Leonard had a reputation as the best player in the series. Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are stars who keep getting better, but Leonard is only player in the series who can say he’s won two championships and two Finals MVPs.
There’s a major opportunity for Kawhi to add to his legend in these playoffs with LeBron James and Stephen Curry sent packing, two Brooklyn Nets’ stars recovering from injury, and MVP Nikola Jokic sent home in round two. Let’s see if Leonard keeps rising to the occasion.
Kawhi is taking souls in the playoffs @clipsnation— SB Nation (@SBNation) June 15, 2021
• dunked on Maxi Kleber in the first round
• dunked on Derrick Favors in the second round pic.twitter.com/d75LiwCtY3