The second act of the Clippers season began with one man stepping onto the court with his eyes downcast despite everyone else’s focus on him and him alone.
Kawhi Leonard had only been seen briefly in the three weeks since the All-Star wing’s last game, his name only mentioned in brief updates at press conferences, as a stiffness in his knee, which had been operated on 16 months earlier, changed his plans .
Thursday night, two hours after Clippers coach Tyronn Lue confirmed Leonard’s return with a soft “mm-hmm,” Leonard’s name was blared over the Crypto.com Arena speaker system to mark his first action since October 23, his first Starting on June 14, 2021, and the first moment of what the Clippers hope is a return that allows the team to fulfill their potential — especially after a first month of the season that has exposed so many of its shortcomings.
Leonard played as a starter in the later 96-91 win over Detroit, replacing the reserve role he held earlier in the season. He played the first six minutes of the first, second and third quarters, then began his final shift with nine minutes, 45 seconds to play in the fourth quarter as part of a five-man change that threw up the entire starting lineup at a critical moment returned the place. The sad Pistons (3-13), without guard Cade Cunningham and center Isaiah Stewart, had led at 12 but were down to three now.
Leonard pointed out to teammates where to stand on defense. He slapped Paul George on the hand after George’s dunk gave the Clippers a 4-57 left lead in a 15-6 finisher 85-79, and less than a minute later he was raising his arms for a foul to plead after his layup extended the lead to 87-81.
Leonard checked out to play at 2:43 after making two of his eight shots with five rebounds and four assists and making a name for himself — the Clippers beat Detroit by 26 points in his 24 minutes.
“With him on the floor, we’re a different team,” Lue said.
It broke Leonard’s streak — which lasted through December 2017 — of 177 straight regular-season games with double-digit goals, the third-longest streak among active players.
“I felt good,” he said. “I was glad to be back.”
Even before Leonard’s setback after experiencing stiffness in his knee on Oct. 25, the Clippers had viewed their season as consisting of two parts: The part where Leonard played off the bench in a limited role and the other when he at full of health and was back as a beginner. The second part is here, even if Leonard isn’t quite ready to handle his full, typical workload of 30+ minutes a night – Leonard acknowledged his recovery is a “two-year process” – but it’s the Clippers’ hope that with Leonard’s place in the rotation set, they can “start to define how we’re going to play,” Lue said.
In their 8-7 start, the Clippers struggled to move the ball, hold it and score. Her saving grace was a stingy defense and a schedule crammed with games against Houston and the Lakers.
“I feel like we have to get better at everything,” Leonard said. “From timeouts, defensive rotations and definitely the offensive end, we need to start getting better shots. Just everything. I feel like we’re behind and need to start concentrating.”
The three weeks without Leonard didn’t lower her season, her record 6-6 in his absence and her anemic offense rising 10 places to 19th, over the last eight games entering Thursday. Nor did Leonard’s return cause all parts of the Clippers to collapse: Outside of Leonard’s first basket, a turnaround baseline jumper that mimicked the form of Michael Jordan, the star Leonard has studied throughout his career, the Clippers jingled to 15 points in the first quarter. John Wall committed four turnovers in under seven minutes, enough for Lue to bench him for the rest of the first half.
Despite 18 turnovers, the Clippers improved to 9-7 behind Reggie Jackson’s season-high 23 points and Ivica Zubac’s nine points and 18 rebounds in 39 minutes. George added 16 points.
The decision to bring Leonard off the bench early in the season hinged on the team’s desire to limit the amount of time he sat and got cold between games. As a result, his minutes were bundled at the end of the first half, the beginning of the second half and the final phase of the fourth quarter.
But when the intent was to keep Leonard in rhythm, it threw the other players out of their own ranks. Others found it difficult to settle into a role because their role changed often; For example, the shooting guard who started the first quarter would not start the third as Leonard would take his place. Leonard said it was clear after his first two appearances that Lue wanted him to compete.
“That was too mean, yeah, I didn’t like that,” Lue said before the tip.
Kawhi was just trying to do what was best for the team,” Lue later added, “and at the time we thought that was for the best. But for now we’re just going to try something different, go a different route and see if that works.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2022-11-17/clippers-pistons-kawhi-leonard-nba-recap Clippers rally to beat Pistons in Kawhi Leonard’s return