Taking the basketball on the right wing as the final 10 seconds of a tied game ticked away, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard was isolated against the defense of Charlotte’s Jalen McDaniels before creating a stride’s worth of separation by stepping to his left.
Leonard leaped, his shot from 18 feet fell through the net, and what the Clippers hope will be the next chapter of their season officially began with a 119-117 victory against the downtrodden Hornets.
Looking little different in the clutch than he had the last time he was healthy enough to play basketball consistently nearly 18 months ago, Leonard’s layup off a pass from George, who saved a missed shot from going out of bounds, with 39 seconds left, followed by his go-ahead jumper with 1.4 seconds remaining, ended an up-and-down game that has been part of an up-and-down season for the Clippers, who have navigated numerous injuries and the lineup disruption that has accompanied them.
“Anytime you see Kawhi go into his spot, that’s where he’s comfortable, and that’s where we’re comfortable,” said Paul George, who like Leonard was also making his return from injury. “Swung the ball, I wanted to get it to him right there and he took us home on that shot.”
The win improved the Clippers to 14-11 on the first night of a four-game road trip.
Before tipoff, coach Tyronn Lue called himself “very excited” that Monday’s return of the injured trio of Leonard, George and Luke Kennard could signal “the start of something new.” A sprained ankle had sidelined Leonard (16 points and six rebounds) since Nov. 21. A sore hamstring tendon had sidelined George (19 points and seven assists) since Nov. 19. Kennard (nine points) hadn’t played since Nov. 15 because of a strained calf.
Mostly, though, they hope this new portion of the season will be the first steps toward looking like the Clippers of old, from 2021, when they were last operating at full strength en route to making the franchise’s first Western Conference finals appearance. Since Leonard’s postseason ended early when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and missed the 2021-22 season, he returned for two games to start this season before sitting for three weeks because of tightness in the knee, then sprained an ankle shortly after that.
“It felt good to be back, I love this game of basketball,” Leonard told reporters in Charlotte. “I don’t think nobody loves playing any more than me. … I love this game and it gives me joy when I’m able to play and I mean, that ending was just great that I was able to make that shot.
“But you know me, we’re up nine, eight points pretty much the whole game, I would rather close it out than finish this game out like that.”
George said Leonard appeared back in “his happy place.”
Leonard’s shot to win the game earned a flying chest bump from forward Marcus Morris Sr., yet it was a bench unit, led by Nicolas Batum that outscored Charlotte’s reserves by 26 points, that helped keep the Clippers in the game. The Clippers outscored Charlotte by 23 in Batum’s 21 minutes and he finished with 13 points. The unit helped pull the Clippers, who had led by nine at halftime only to trail by nine with four minutes left in the third quarter after a defensive effort Lue diplomatically said “wasn’t very good,” back from the brink.
“I thought Kawhi made a big shot,” Lue said, “but our bench was huge for us tonight.”
The Clippers took 36 three-pointers against Charlotte, an important marker for their coach, who wants more than the 31.6 three-point attempts per game his team had taken entering Monday, a rate that was good for only 23rd in the NBA. The pressure George and Leonard’s presence will put on defenses “is going to cause teams to double team, teams to do some things they’re not used to doing and we’re going to get open shots,” Lue said.
Just as important is that their place in the rotation will help reduce the wear and tear on teammates such as Morris and Reggie Jackson, who had shouldered a larger workload in their absence and had begun to wear down.
Lue called the next 20 games telling for how closely the Clippers resemble the championship-caliber team they aspire to become. George downplayed the urgency to make up for lost time.
“In the big picture, we just wanna be playing well at the right time,” he said. “As long as we're learning on the fly, as long as we're learning each game, how to get better, how to prepare, how to win, how to finish, how to dominate, that's what matters.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.