Two years ago, while the Clippers and other suitors were tracking would-be free agent Kawhi Leonard from afar, trying to understand what the All-Star forward wanted, and what made him tick, Nate Bjorkgren spent nearly 11 months receiving a first-hand education.
An assistant on Nick Nurse’s Toronto staff for Leonard’s lone season with the Raptors, Bjorkgren was there for Leonard’s arrival following the trade from San Antonio. He was there for practices, shootarounds and bus rides to the hotel. He was there for a postseason run for the ages, as Leonard averaged more than 30 points, nine rebounds and five assists en route to the Raptors’ 2019 championship.
“Puts a lot of time into everything about the game,” Bjorkgren said. “He reads scouting reports and studies film. He wants the best out there for his team. … So just his overall approach to the game was the first thing that stood out most to me, and just his willingness to be a team player.”
Bjorkgren no longer shares a sideline with Leonard. Instead, as Indiana’s coach Sunday, he shared everything he knew about the Clippers star’s tendencies with the Pacers.
“We got a group of guys here in Indiana that are gonna go after him,” Bjorkgren promised before tipoff, and his short-handed roster heard him loud and clear — partially because the coach spent many possessions barking instructions with his mask off.
Leonard was held to just five shots, and six points, during the first half, before flashing the dominance his old assistant grew accustomed to seeing in Toronto in helping the Clippers claim a 129-96 win.
A pair of dunks, a baseline layup and the Clippers were out of danger after an 18-point lead in the first half was sliced to just two within the first two minutes of the third quarter.
Two nights after the Clippers heeded coach Tyronn Lue’s challenge to put a stop to what had become a trend of a leaky second-half defense through a dominant third-quarter display in Sacramento, the team outscored Indiana by 19 points in the third to effectively end scrappy Indiana’s night, too — with Leonard at the center of it all.
He scored 11 points in the third while dishing five assists that led to 13 more points as the Clippers widened a lead that would grow to as many as 32 points. Leonard watched the fourth quarter from the bench, his work done after 17 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Teammates Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard and Paul George each scored 20.
“We haven’t seen triangle-and-two [defense] or box-and-one,” Lue said. “After we adjusted to it in the second half I thought we did a great job, PG and Kawhi. “… They came in with the mind-set they was going to take Kawhi and [George] out the game. I thought PG and Kawhi did a great job just staying patient. Kawhi was able to turn the corner a few times and get downhill and get a couple layups and dunks and PG a couple in transition.”
This was not the Indiana (8-5) roster that entered the night with the league’s third-best point differential. The Pacers were without Myles Turner, scorer T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb and the newly acquired Caris LeVert, who remains out indefinitely after a physical following his trade from Brooklyn discovered a mass on his kidney.
The Clippers (10-4) weren’t whole, either. Lou Williams was sidelined for a second consecutive game with an injured hip, and center Serge Ibaka missed his first game because of an illness not related to COVID-19, the team said. They still had Leonard and George, and no matter how well Bjorkgren knew the star’s tendencies, his injury-riddled roster could only limit them for so long.
Despite 15 first-quarter points by Pacers wing Doug McDermott, who would finish with 23, the Clippers led by 10 points after the first quarter and their lead was 18 within the game’s first 18 minutes.
When Indiana pulled within three points late in the second quarter, after a careless pass that Justin Holiday turned into a transition dunk, the Clippers were no longer the happy group that had jumped out of their sideline seats earlier in the game, some holding their heads in disbelief, after George flushed an acrobatic dunk over Holiday.
George wanted a word with Luke Kennard over miscommunication entering a timeout after Holiday’s dunk capped a 14-2 run that was part of a larger 20-5 run. Indiana then cut its lead to just two by scoring three baskets all within four feet to open the third quarter. It would be the rally’s high-water mark.
The Clippers closed the quarter on a 37-14 run in which Leonard was instrumental, giving his former coach an up-close reminder of just how special he can be.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.