Kawhi Leonard’s return is a long-term Clippers win, but his rust hurt them in Game 2

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Kawhi Leonard’s return is a long-term Clippers win, but his rust hurt them in Game 2

LOS ANGELES — The moment it appeared LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard could make his 2024 postseason debut after missing more than three weeks due to right knee inflammation came Tuesday morning at the team’s practice facility. Leonard emerged from the weight room ready for shootaround, speaking with point guard James Harden.

There have been other times Leonard has been present for shootaround, but they came when he was already ruled out, not questionable as he was Tuesday. Once Leonard arrived to Crypto.com Arena nearly three hours before the start of Game 2 against the Dallas Mavericks, it was clear Leonard was ready to play for the first time in 23 days. No game-time decision necessary.

Fans greeted Leonard with a roar during pregame introductions, but then came the other side of the coin — the actual basketball fit. If there was a reason to question Leonard’s ability to return for Game 2, it was because the two-time NBA Finals MVP wasn’t even able to make functional “basketball movements” a little less than a week ago.

“Contact tonight,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said pregame.

When Leonard comes back from multi-week absences, he tends to ease into games. That’s fine in the regular season. But the Clippers took Game 1 against Dallas specifically because their eight-man rotation did not have a “feel-out game” mentality, while the Mavericks brought such a subpar level of physicality and mental preparation that their stars Luka Dončić and Kyrie Irving vowed to be better from the jump in Game 2.

And the Mavericks were just good enough in Game 2 to win 96-93, tying the best-of-seven series at a game apiece and swiping home-court advantage. Leonard finished with 15 points on 7-of-17 shooting, but no Clipper had a worse plus-minus than Leonard’s minus-8 in 34:55. Leonard’s return may have been an emotional lift, but physically, it was something of an albatross.

“Just trying to make sure I can get into the game and play,” Leonard said after Game 2, adding that he wasn’t able to do much in practices. “That’s what last week’s been about, just trying to get back on the floor.”



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Leonard has had three postseasons in his career end prematurely due to injury (2017, 2021, 2023), while not participating at all in two others due to rehabilitations that cost him most (2017-18) or all (2021-22) of a season.

For the first time in Leonard’s career, he made his return from a multi-week absence for a playoff game. And it wasn’t just any playoff game: Leonard had never played in front of a capacity home crowd in the postseason since joining the Clippers in 2019.

But Leonard got off to a slow start in front of that crowd Tuesday, as he missed both of his shot attempts in a scoreless first quarter as the Mavericks lead 23-19 by the end of it. Clippers center Ivica Zubac was a hero in Game 1 while scoring a postseason career-high 20 points, but he got into foul trouble early in Game 2, starting a domino effect of rotations that Lue didn’t want to tap into and canceling Zubac’s chance of a repeat performance. Instead, the Clippers missed 10 of 13 shots in the paint in the first quarter.

“With Zu having those first early two fouls, kind of changed the game for us,” Lue said.

Leonard’s first bucket came with 10:10 left in the second quarter. It was classic Leonard, the most efficient high-volume scorer in isolation in the league this season. He jab-stepped Mavericks forward P.J. Washington, got to his spot, then rose up in the midrange:

But Leonard had only four points at halftime on 2-of-6 shooting. His star teammates fared better, as All-Star Paul George and Harden had 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting from the field in a first half as the Mavericks took a 45-41 lead.

Leonard’s return led to a different rhythm for the Clippers’ ballhandlers, though, and it led to fewer minutes for most of the rest of the rotation. While Leonard was trying to adjust to the game, Harden missed all five of his first-half 3-pointers, with the Clippers missing 11 of 13 first-half 3s overall. That’s a poor attempt rate to go with terrible efficiency. And George got into first-half foul trouble for the second time in this series, with George’s third foul forcing Leonard back on the floor for the final 1:51 of the first half.

“At this point of my career, I’m expecting things not to go my way, and so I don’t try to allow that to take me out of my game,” George said after finishing Game 2 with 22 points but five fouls. “So, they call fouls on me. They don’t call fouls for me. I got to just keep playing and try to do as much as I can and just stay positive. Just don’t let that affect my performance and just play through it.”

The rest of the Clippers either played poorly or did not get to make as much of an impact. Terance Mann missed five of his seven shots in the first half. Backup center Mason Plumlee only scored one point while missing all three of his field goal attempts in relief of Zubac, and the Clippers didn’t give him another chance after halftime. Norman Powell made a movement 3 assisted by Leonard, but that was his only bucket of the first half. Russell Westbrook missed all three shots in a short appearance in the first half that saw him play only 6:59. Amir Coffey went from filling in for Leonard to playing only 6:55 in the first half; his lone shot attempt of the game was a cutting fadeaway that ended a five-and-a-half-minute, first-quarter field goal drought.

Leonard’s most encouraging sign was how he played in the third quarter, which he started by picking off a Derrick Jones Jr. pass for a transition dunk:

Later in the third, Leonard skied to rebound and convert a missed George midrange attempt:

“I thought in the second half, in that third quarter, he really got active,” Lue said of Leonard. “Couple of offensive rebounds, putbacks to kind of get him going. As far as getting the rhythm, as far as his plays and getting his shots and things like that, that’s going to come. I thought eventually there were some good things, some steals, some deflections, and it was just good to have him back on the floor.”

Leonard had eight points on 4-of-7 shooting in the third quarter. He did not make it to the free-throw line until the fourth quarter, splitting two attempts, and he didn’t make a basket in the final frame until he beat Irving on a backdoor cut in the final minute.

But the feedback Leonard got from his teammates and competitors offered perspective. Leonard is a great player working his way back from a significant absence.

“One of the hardest things to do as a professional athlete is to sit for a month, or three weeks, and come back into a playoff game or high-intense game and play well,” Irving said. “I think tonight, he showed flashes of his brilliance and what we know Kawhi to be. And we just got to be aware of how much of a different impact he can make on the game. And when he gets it going and gets in that rhythm, we just got to be ready to defend him.”

George called his teammate “one of the best in the world” after Tuesday’s loss.

“He’s going to find his rhythm. We’re going to find our rhythm around him,” George said. “We feel good about it despite — I don’t ever like to take or look at the moral victories; we lost, which is frustrating and upsetting — but it is great having (No.) 2 back out there with us, and we’ll all adjust. We’ll get our timing back, our rhythm back and (get) a better flow.”

It’s great to celebrate a recovered player. But this is the playoffs, and the Clippers are trying to win a championship. Leonard has to spearhead that effort. Getting him back healthy was the necessary step, but now Leonard has to help the Clippers steal a game on the road.

“Just keep trying to get a rhythm back and obviously try to win a basketball game,” Leonard said. “We got pretty stagnant tonight in that fourth quarter. I want to just be able to get a rhythm with the team and get a win.”

(Photo of Kawhi Leonard and P.J. Washington: Harry How / Getty Images)