Kawhi Leonard’s introduction in the Clippers’ starting lineup Monday evening was met by a familiar roar through Crypto.com Arena — the sound of a collective sigh of relief at seeing Leonard again after he missed four consecutive games with a left hip contusion.
Less than two quarters later, Leonard’s tumble to the court and hard landing on that same hip, after scoring off an offensive rebound while being fouled, was met by a moment of unease — one familiar to anyone who has watched Leonard go in and out of the lineup because of injuries.
Leonard scored 13 points in the second quarter to help the Clippers climb out of a 14-point deficit to lead by one at halftime — an advantage they never gave up again in a 121-104 win against Miami that improved them to 20-12.
Leonard scored 24 points, making 10 of his 19 shots while adding six rebounds, five assists and four steals. In 34 minutes, he turned the ball over just twice.
“He [does] all the little intangible stuff,” teammate Paul George said of Leonard. “It’s just so reliable.”
Don’t look now, but so are the Clippers, who are 17-5 since altering their starting lineup Nov. 17, and winners of 12 of their last 14 games. Some Clippers comebacks carry a flair for the dramatic, down to the wire; this was methodical, done quickly. They led Miami by as many as 22 points.
Only three days before, George suggested “it’s going to take some time to get Kawhi back.” In fact, it took only a few more days for him to return to the lineup, plus the first quarter for him to find a rhythm, as Leonard missed both shots he attempted in the opening quarter. Facing Miami’s zone, which the Heat deploy more than any other team, also disrupted the Clippers’ overall offensive flow as they quickly fell behind by double digits and turned the ball over seven times.
But over the final three quarters, the Clippers committed only 10 more turnovers, and in the second, Leonard looked like the superstar who made 61% of his shots, including 50% of his three-pointers, in December while averaging 29.3 points during nine consecutive Clippers wins before being hurt. At one point Leonard made five consecutive shots, including grabbing the offensive rebound, basket and foul off of a miss by James Harden that sent him tumbling down before getting up quickly.
Leonard, who did not speak with reporters after the game, had moments where he looked to be coming back from a 10-day layoff. His midrange jumper, a Leonard staple, was unusually short in the third quarter, and then he was stripped of the ball by former UCLA star Jaime Jaquez Jr. for a dunk.
But in the fourth quarter, with the Clippers leading by 10, he blew by Bam Adebayo for a baseline reverse dunk, then on the next possession ripped a steal from Kevin Love. And with 8:40 to play, he stole a bad pass by Adebayo and dribbled into a transition three-pointer for a 106-90 lead — a bucket he celebrated with a leaping high-five going into the next huddle.
“You see him, you see the performance: Both ends of the ball, just elite,” said Harden, who had 15 points and 10 assists. “Shot-making, defensively, just being active, creating opportunities in transition. We needed that, to get well and get better, and we missed him.”
George scored 23 points and Norman Powell had 22 off the bench, while making nine of his 11 shots. Powell has shot 56% in his last nine games, with only seven turnovers, continuing his season’s strong start.
The Clippers shot 58%, and made 14 of their 29 three-pointers while leading by as many as 22 points.
The Heat (19-14) played without Jimmy Butler. Jaquez, who was received warmly during pregame introductions, scored 15 points.
Russell Westbrook scored eight points off the bench to pass Patrick Ewing for 25th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
In addition to Leonard’s return, backup center Mason Plumlee was on the active roster for the first time since he sprained a knee ligament Nov. 6. Daniel Theis, the center the team signed to fill the place of the injured Plumlee in November, said last week that coaches had yet to tell him how they planned to use him and Plumlee once both were available. A decision isn’t imminent because coach Tyronn Lue wants Plumlee to participate in more of the scrimmages the team’s reserves play against coaches as he gets used to wearing a knee brace and improves his conditioning.
“He is available but we still want to make sure we are doing the right thing and making sure that we're taking the slow [route] and ease him back in,” Lue said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.