Clippers on why Kawhi Leonard came off bench in win over Lakers

Kawhi Leonard waited 493 days to play in an NBA regular-season game before the Clippers’ season opener — then he had to wait a little longer before his return from knee surgery was official.

Leonard played off the bench in the Clippers’ 103-97 win over the Lakers at Arena Thursday night, the first time since Nov. 10, 2013 that the NBA Finals’ two-time most valuable player failed to start.

Leonard finished the game with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting and added seven rebounds and two assists in 21 carefully planned minutes that helped the Clippers win their eighth straight neck-and-neck game against the Lakers .

“As said [coach Tyronn] Lue, whatever he’s doing with his subs and how he thinks it should go without me interfering with the game and throwing people off rhythm, I’m all for it,” Leonard said. “I just want to win”

The decision to bring Leonard off the bench reflected the Clippers’ extremely cautious approach to increasing Leonard’s workload while balancing their ultimate goal of keeping him healthy in the postseason. The decision came after a discussion within the team that took into account multiple factors but was based on a clear top priority: how to ensure Leonard can be available for the most impactful minutes like the end of the fourth quarter?

Leonard is not held to a specific number of minutes. Instead, the team measures their workload in real-time by monitoring certain markers, including the length and intensity of their play periods and how much time elapses between those periods. Closing games wouldn’t be possible if Leonard started, the team argued, because they were suspicious of how long he would sit.

“In the beginning I would have been sitting for about 35 minutes in real time, so that’s way too long, so I just felt like that was the best situation,” Leonard said.

After sitting the entire first quarter, Leonard played the final six minutes and 25 seconds before halftime, checking in with the Clippers holding a 12-point lead. Despite the atmosphere of a Lakers home game, he received remarkable applause. Leonard quickly made his first two shots, the first being a midrange pull-up jumper before pushing back Juan Toscano-Anderson and doing a turnaround jumper.

“I thought he was handsome,” Lue said. “I thought he would get tired on the stretch but I thought he would have a good pop to start the game after sitting for so long.”

Clippers guard John Wall drives through the Lakers defense to score in the second quarter on Thursday.

Clippers guard John Wall drives through the Lakers defense to score in the second quarter on Thursday.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Waiting nearly 18 minutes of play is a small price to pay, Leonard said.

“It’s been long,” Leonard said. “But I waited 82 games last year, so I didn’t think 15 minutes would be that long.”

The Clippers’ first substitute, John Wall, had endured his own lengthy layoff – 545 days – before his return in an NBA court on Thursday. The five-time All-Star point guard, 32, made his first two jump shots from the center before firing to the rim for a layup that showed the quickness the Clippers felt was a missing element. Wall finished with 15 points and three assists and made seven of his 15 shots.

“I was geeked,” Wall said of his return. “I will not lie.”

Leonard, 31, has been trying to tone down expectations of his initial production as he resumes his usual workload after a long layoff. After making his first two baskets, he missed his next three shots to end the first half and was unable to find an open teammate after being swarmed by two defenders on the final possession of the half. The Clippers as a whole showed their rust for several stretches, losing their 16-point lead in the final five minutes of the first half through a mix of five turnovers and lax defense. They finished with 22 turnovers and nine missed free throws.

Lue and the Clippers reiterated that their priority is making sure Leonard is at his best in the spring.

“Sometimes he’s going to look like Kawhi Leonard, and sometimes he’s just trying to get a feel and isn’t playing well,” Lue said.

“He needs to understand that as great as he is, he won’t come overnight. We have to be patient with him on that and he has to be patient with himself too.”

Leonard played the first six minutes of the second half before returning for the third time with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, leaving the Clippers 89-87 behind. He missed his first shot, but his offensive rebound resulted in a three-pointer from Reggie Jackson.

The plan to make Leonard a reserve was “everybody’s idea,” said coach Tyronn Lue, adding that Leonard’s use will adjust as the readiness progresses.

“It’s not like it’s going to be long term, it can always change if he’s not comfortable with it and we can do better for him,” Lue said. “It’s going to continue tonight and we’ll see how it goes from there.” Clippers on why Kawhi Leonard came off bench in win over Lakers

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