It’s generally held, among some NBA journalists, that Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard Luke Kennard is not sexy. It’s a view that has nothing to do with his physical appearance, but rather that Kennard tends to not generate the same level of attention, from a media-consuming public, as other players on his team.
Of course, next to the likes of drink-stirring superstars Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, a role player such as Kennard is no match. For the same reasons that Chicago’s BJ Armstrong or Steve Kerr were many millions of gallons of newspaper ink behind Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen.
But even when it comes to non-superstars — players like Patrick Beverley, Reggie Jackson or Terance Mann — Kennard lags behind in terms of public interest, likely because those guys play more, but also because of their postgame personas. Beverley is outspoken both on and off the court, Jackson seems to relish engaging with reporters, regularly providing more information and context than expected, and Mann’s relative innocence can often come across as charming (especially when he did this).
The even-keeled Kennard, meanwhile, rarely goes off-script in his postgame comments, preferring instead to toe the company line and reiterate his willingness to do whatever it takes for the team. It’s not a bad thing necessarily, just not very sexy in the eyes of reporters or the public, or so it’s believed.
But recently, as he more and more becomes a reliable deadeye in somewhat critical situations, Kennard is beginning to force the public’s attention — and the attention of opponents.
Kennard Implored by Team to Be More Aggressive
On Friday, a day before the Clippers’ Game 4 showdown with Phoenix in the Western Conference finals, Kennard spoke to reporters after practice and was asked if there’s been any discussion about him doing more as a ball-handler and creator, as teams begin to pay him more mind.
“They are definitely calling more plays and they just want me to be aggressive,” said Kennard, commonly a spot-up shooter. “Teams are starting to hug up towards me a little more and running me off the three-point line and they say take it to the basket, make a play, use those abilities that you’ve done before and just create.”
Following a productive 10 points and two assists in the Clippers’ soul-crushing loss in Game 2, Kennard played 21 minutes in Game 3 (his most in the last seven games) — a 116-92 victory that brought the Clippers within one win of leveling the series at 2-2.
Though Kennard’s final box score for Game 3 was not exactly mouth-watering (9 points, 1 assist, 1 rebound on 3-for-7 shooting), the fourth-year Duke product was crucial in staving off a Suns second-half comeback.
With four seconds remaining in the third quarter, amidst an 11-5 Suns run that had cut the Clippers’ lead to seven (during which George went 0-for-6), Kennard sank a triple from the left corner to push L.A.’s advantage back up to 10. (The lead was 11 at the end of the quarter, thanks to a half-court bank shot by George.)
Kennard, who turned 25 the same day, then connected on another corner three only 30 seconds into the fourth, this time while getting fouled on an ill-fated closeout by Suns big man Dario Saric. The eventual 4-point play put the Clippers back up by 15 — a cushion L.A. would especially come to appreciate in light of the Suns 7-0 run to narrow the lead to six with seven minutes to go.
After the game, Jackson, who continued his excellent fourth-quarter play and finished with 23 points, referred to those buckets by Kennard as “big, clutch shots,” while Kennard himself attributed his willingness to shoot in those situations, in part, to the encouragement he’s received all year from the team.
“They told me since the beginning of the year to shoot the ball — Kawhi (Leonard), PG, everybody, our leaders of the team, they told me to shoot the ball,” said Kennard. “And now I’m just believing in myself and everybody believes in each other and just having the confidence to go out and shoot the ball and not have any kind of space.”
Zubac-Beverley Tandem Paying Dividends
With Leonard already ruled out of Saturday night’s Game 4 — the sixth straight he’s missed from an ACL issue — and Marcus Morris still struggling with knee soreness, it’s likely Kennard will be called on for more timely shooting as the Clippers look to even things up.
The team will also be looking for contributions from other guys whose minutes have fluctuated throughout the playoffs.
Big man Ivica Zubac, the team’s starting center for the second half of the regular season following Serge Ibaka’s back injury, was brutalized by Dallas’ Luka Doncic in the first round and was mostly a non-factor in the Utah series as the Clippers stuck with a small-ball lineup focused on guarding the perimeter. But with Deandre Ayton manning the center position for Phoenix — the first real interior scoring threat the Clippers have faced this postseason save for perhaps Dallas’ 7-foot-4 Boban Marjanovic — Zubac has been called back into regular action.
In Game 1, Ayton dominated Zubac to the tune of 20 points and nine rebounds on 10-for-14 shooting, and was even more effective in Game 2, snatching 14 rebounds and shooting 80% on his way to 24 points, the final two coming on a lob dunk over Zubac to win the game.
Things looked to be going the same direction in the first quarter of Game 3, as Ayton scored 10 points on 5-for 6 shooting within the first 10 minutes. But unlike the previous two contests, Zubac eventually found his footing defensively, limiting Ayton to just eight points over the final three quarters, while himself contributing 15 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks.
On Friday, Zubac talked about how the recent re-emergence of Patrick Beverley has helped him (Zubac) to better guard on pick-and-rolls, something Dallas exploited to great success.
“I always know Pat is going to do a hell of a job just getting around a screen. He’s going to have a great contest on guards who pull up for jumpers, so I don’t have to be that high on the pick-and-roll,” said Zubac. “He knows he can just funnel all the guys to me in the paint. That’s how we’ve been playing for our entire time together. We know what we need to do without saying it to each other.”
If Zubac and Kennard can continue their solid play in Game 4, the Clippers could be well-positioned to steal yet another series in which they were down 2-0, buying them a ticket to The Finals and a shot at a first-ever title.
Now, how sexy is that?
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