The second act of the Clippers’ season began with a man stepping onto the court with eyes down, even as everyone else’s focused on him, and him alone.
Kawhi Leonard had been seen only in glimpses, his name mentioned only in brief updates at news conferences, in the three weeks since the All-Star wing last played, since stiffness in the knee that had undergone surgery 16 months earlier altered his plans.
Thursday evening, two hours after Clippers coach Tyronn Lue confirmed 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 is a return that will allow the team to realize its potential — particularly after a first month of the season that revealed so many of its flaws.
Playing as a starter amid the eventual 96-91 win against Detroit instead of the reserve role he held at the season’s start, Leonard 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 substitution that returned the entire starting lineup to the court at a critical juncture. The woeful Pistons (3-13), without guard Cade Cunningham and center Isaiah Stewart, had led by 12 but were now up just three.
Leonard pointed teammates to where they needed to stand on defense. He slapped hands with Paul George, after George’s dunk pushed the Clippers ahead 85-79 with 4:57 left amid a 15-6 closing run, and less than a minute later he raised his arms to plead for a foul after his layup extended that lead to 87-81.
Leonard checked out with 2:43 to play, having made two of his eight shots, with five rebounds and four assists, and having made his mark — the Clippers outscored Detroit by 26 in his 24 minutes.
“With him on the floor, we’re a different team,” Lue said.
It broke Leonard’s streak — dating to December 2017 — of 177 consecutive regular-season games scoring in double figures, the third-longest streak among active players.
“I felt good,” he said. “I was happy to be back.”
Even before Leonard’s setback after feeling stiffness in his knee Oct. 25, the Clippers had viewed their season as existing in two parts: The portion with Leonard playing in a limited role off the bench, and the other when he was at full health and back as a starter. The second part is here, even as Leonard is not yet ready to handle his full, typical workload of more than 30 minutes per night — Leonard acknowledged his recovery is a “two-year process” — but it is the Clippers’ hope that with Leonard’s place in the rotation set they can “start establishing how we’re gonna play,” Lue said.
Their 8-7 start had seen the Clippers struggle to move the ball, hold onto it and score it. Their saving grace was a stingy defense and a schedule front-loaded with games against Houston and the Lakers.
“I feel like we need to be better at everything,” Leonard said. “Out of timeouts, defensive rotations, definitely the offensive end, we’ve got to start getting better shots. Just everything. I feel like we’re behind and we need to start focusing up.”
The three weeks without Leonard did not sink their season, their record 6-6 in his absence and their anemic offense rising 10 spots, to 19th, over the last eight games entering Thursday. Nor did Leonard’s return cause all of the Clippers’ pieces to fall into place, either: 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 clanked to 15 first-quarter points. John Wall committed four turnovers in fewer than seven minutes, enough for Lue to bench him 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 to start the season hinged on the team’s desire to limit how long he sat, growing cold, between playing stints. As a result, his minutes were bundled into the end of the first half, the start of the second half and the final stretch of the fourth quarter.
Yet if the intention was to keep Leonard in rhythm, it threw the rest of the players out of their own. Others found it difficult to settle into a role because their role was often changing; the shooting guard who started the first quarter would not start the third, for example, as Leonard would take his place. Leonard said it was clear after his first two appearances that Lue wanted him to start.
“That was too nasty, yeah, I didn’t like it,” Lue said before tipoff.
Kawhi was just trying to do what was best for the team,” Lue later added, “and at the time we thought that was what was best. But now we’re gonna just try another something different, go another route and see if this works.”