The Los Angeles Clippers trailed the Portland Trail Blazers by six points entering the fourth quarter on Thursday. Kawhi Leonard changed that nearly singlehandedly. He scored 18 points, brought in six rebounds and dished out an assist to help the Clippers to a 107-101 victory. The Blazers, playing on the front half of a back-to-back, did not limit any of their players to a minutes-restriction. C.J. McCollum played 40 minutes, while Damian Lillard played 33.
The Clippers have taken a different, and more controversial, approach this season. This game was the second half of a back-to-back for Los Angeles, and Leonard sat out Wednesday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. Clearly, this was something that Blazers coach Terry Stotts noticed. He seemingly commented on the Clippers’ load management strategy for Leonard after the game to NBC Sports Northwest.
“He looked well-rested,” Stotts said of Leonard. “He was able to take it to another gear in the fourth quarter.” Unsaid was that his own stars did not. Lillard and McCollum were both held scoreless in the fourth quarter. The Blazers were carried in the final frame by players who happened to be better-rested. Anfernee Simons scored Portland’s first 12 points of the quarter, and he played only 26 minutes in total. Hassan Whiteside scored several times toward the end of it, and he played 27.
The Blazers have typically not employed the sort of load-management tactics that the Clippers are using this season. Lillard missed only two games last season, one of which was a meaningless regular-season finale. The NBA as a whole is split on the subject. The success of Leonard, as well as the sustained runs by the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, have led some teams to exercise more caution in resting players. Many teams, however, remain unconvinced.
Portland appears to be one of those teams, though Stotts may be coming around based on what Leonard just did to him. The league would certainly prefer the Blazers to stay the course. The fewer teams rest star players, particularly on national television, the better for business. But more and more examples of the benefits of load-management continue to arise. It’s impossible to know how this game would have gone had Leonard played on Wednesday (a close loss for the Clippers), or if the Blazers had managed their own minutes more carefully. But the team that had its big star on an extra day of rest won on Thursday. It’s possible that the team that didn’t is just bitter after a tough loss, but it’s just as possible that they’ll view it as a model to emulate moving forward.