Evening’s second act of the Clippers’ season began with a man going onto the floor with his eyes cast downwards, despite everyone’s attention being solely on him.
Three weeks had passed since the All-Star wing’s last game, and his name had been mentioned only in passing at press conferences, due to knee stiffness that had required surgery 16 months ago and disrupted his plans.
Thursday evening, two hours after Clippers coach Tyronn Lue confirmed Kawhi Leonard’s return with a quiet “mm-hmm,” Leonard’s name was blared through the Crypto.com Arena speaker system to mark his first action since Oct. 23, his first start since June 14, 2021, and the first moment of what the Clippers hope will be a return that will allow the team to realize its potential, especially after a first month of the season that exposed so many of its flaws.
Leonard began his final shift with 9 minutes, 45 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter as part of a five-man substitution that returned the entire starting lineup to the court at a crucial juncture. He played the first six minutes of each of the first, second, and third quarters as a starter during the eventual 96-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons. The miserable Pistons (3-13), missing guard Cade Cunningham and big Isaiah Stewart, had led by as many as 12 points, but now held a three-point advantage.
Leonard directed his colleagues to their defensive positions. He shook hands with Paul George after George’s dunk extended the Clippers’ lead to 85-79 with 4:57 remaining during a 15-6 closing run. Less than a minute later, he pleaded for a foul after his layup increased the Clippers’ lead to 87-81.
Leonard checked out with 2:43 remaining, having made two of eight shots, accumulating five rebounds and four assists, and has left his mark — the Clippers had outscored the Pistons by 26 points in his 24 minutes of play. It ended Leonard’s streak of scoring in double digits in 177 straight regular-season games, the third-longest active streak among active players.
Even before Leonard’s setback on October 25, when he felt stiffness in his knee, the Clippers envisioned their season as having two parts: one with Leonard playing in a limited capacity off the bench, and the other when he was well enough to return to the starting lineup.
The Clippers believe that with Leonard’s spot in the rotation established, they can “start establishing how we’re going to play” after an 8-7 start in which they struggled to move the ball, keep it, and score. Their savior was a tenacious defense and a schedule that included games versus Houston and the Lakers early on.
The three-week absence of Kawhi Leonard did not derail the Spurs’ season, as seen by their 6-6 record in his absence and their offensive improvement of 10 spots to 19th place in their last eight games prior to Thursday.
Neither did Leonard’s return cause the Clippers’ remaining pieces to fall into place: Except for Leonard’s first basket, a baseline turnaround jumper that emulated the form of Michael Jordan, a superstar Leonard has studied throughout his career, the Clippers scored only 15 points in the first quarter. John Wall committed four mistakes in less than seven minutes, prompting Coach Lue to sit him for the remainder of the opening half.
The Clippers improved to 9-7 despite committing 18 turnovers thanks to Reggie Jackson’s season-high 23 points and Ivica Zubac’s nine points and 18 rebounds in 39 minutes. George contributed 16 points.
The decision to start the season with Leonard on the bench was based on the team’s desire to restrict the amount of time he sat, growing cold, between playing stints. Consequently, his playing time was concentrated at the end of the first half, the beginning of the second half, and the last stretch of the fourth quarter.
However, if the aim was to maintain Leonard’s rhythm, it threw the rest of the team off. And for the coach entrusted with rearranging his lineups to accommodate Leonard’s reserve status, while simultaneously navigating a minutes restriction for backup point guard Wall, it offered more difficulties than advantages. The others had difficulty settling into a role since their role changed frequently; for instance, the shooting guard who started the first quarter would not start the third, as Leonard would start in his stead.
Lue stated prior to tip-off, “That was too vicious, I didn’t like it.” “I mean, you’ve got the best player, but sometimes the game goes on for so long that you forget, and then Brian Shaw taps you on the shoulder with six or seven minutes left in the second quarter, and you’re like, ‘Oh, Kawhi’s ready.'”
Leonard added, “Kawhi was simply attempting to do what was best for the team, and at the time, we believed that to be the case. But now we’re going to try something else, take a different approach, and see if this works.”