Did Kawhi Leonard's minutes restriction cost Clippers a win over Lakers?

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 07: LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) handles the ball.

With one of their most important late-game closers watching from the bench, the Clippers spent the final minutes of Sunday night attempting to close a double-digit, fourth-quarter comeback.

Facing the Lakers at Arena, the Clippers trimmed their 10-point deficit to just one with three minutes left before Anthony Davis made a jumper to extend that lead to three, leading Clippers coach Tyronn Lue to take a timeout with 2:47 remaining. When his team broke their huddle, star wing Kawhi Leonard was out of the game, taking a seat next to the team’s assistant coaches. He stayed there until being reinserted with 17 seconds left.

The Clippers would lose 106-103, snapping their five-game winning streak, and afterward Lue said the decision stemmed from a limit on minutes the team wanted Leonard to play in his fourth game since returning from a hip injury that sidelined him four games.

“He was close to his minutes restriction and we got a back-to-back tomorrow,” Lue said, referencing the Clippers’ game Monday against Phoenix.

Read more: Lakers withstand late Clippers surge and end their four-game losing streak

Leonard said he understood the reasoning.

“I mean, I would love to be on the floor and play, but I mean, it is what it is,” he said. “We got more games to play. You know, that's how it rolled out tonight.”

Leonard played 35 minutes, scoring 15 points on six-of-17 shooting, the worst he had shot from the field since Nov. 25. He added eight rebounds, three steals, two blocks with three turnovers and played every minute of the fourth quarter until taking a seat because Lue said the game “kind of got away from us a little bit."

Lue brought Leonard “back in a little earlier than we normally do, and he had to play his extended minutes early in the quarter instead of late in the quarter. So that's on me as a decision that I made to get him in early to come back.

“We were down eight and he did a good job, being on the floor, bringing us back and it was my decision. Like I said, he was close to his minutes and we got a back to back tomorrow and so just got to be smart about it, especially with him coming back from injury.”

Leonard sitting in crunch time wasn’t the only thing uncharacteristic about the loss that dropped them to 22-13. For weeks, the Clippers have cautioned that their incredible season turnaround had not left them infallible — a point their coach underscored again before tipoff Sunday.

“We got to get better at each and every game and that's got to be our focus,” Lue said. “I can't let these guys off the hook because we're playing well right now.”

For the next two hours against the Lakers, the Clippers showed why they were right to be, as star wing Paul George said last week in Phoenix, “not content on where we're at.”

In a game between one team that had spent the past month scorching, and the other scuffling, the Clippers lost multiple opportunities to extend their latest winning streak while committing 16 turnovers. And their shot to magnify the gap between themselves and their Arena co-tenants went amiss, just as they missed an uncharacteristic amount of shots. The league’s second most-efficient offense since Dec. 1 shot 39.6% to match their worst shooting performance this season. It was the first time they had shot worse than 40% from the field since Nov. 8.

It was the rare performance when all of the Clippers’ best scorers struggled, including Norman Powell, who made three of his 12 shots, but also played the second half on a sprained right ankle. James Harden made four of his 13 shots for 15 points and George shot eight for 18. The Clippers didn’t score more than 29 points in any quarter.

“I thought [Lakers coach Darvin] Ham did a good job just mixing up his coverages, doing different things, switching, sometimes blitzing, sometimes firing,” Lue said. “So they did a good job of trying to keep us off-balanced and like I said, our guys PG, [Leonard] and James never really got going offensively.”

Read more: Clippers rout Pelicans with a lineup that is paying big dividends

Ivica Zubac was the outlier, finishing with 22 points and 19 rebounds. All nine of his baskets were in the paint. The rest of the team was abysmal trying to score there. Lue felt the Lakers’ length was a factor.

“We had a chance to win this, we know this game is on us,” George said.

Multiple chances. Beginning with 6:16 to play in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers trailed 94-93, they missed their next five shots. After a Zubac basket broke the drought, the Clippers didn’t score again for two minutes. And still, it remained a one-possession game until the last second, when Powell missed a deep game-tying shot.

The turnovers “allowed them to get a lot of easy ones in the second half and I think that hurt us the most,” Zubac said. “We just turned it over too much. And we took some bad shots on offense, heavily contested. That’s it. But we will be better.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.