Kawhi Leonard looked and played the best he has since tearing his right ACL, and the LA Clippers enjoyed their best victory of the season.
Leonard made 10 of 12 shots, including two 3-pointers, and had 25 points, nine rebounds and six assists to lead the Clippers to a resounding 113-93 triumph over the Boston Celtics on Monday night at Crypto.com Arena.
Even though this was easily Leonard’s best game since tearing his right ACL in Game 4 of the Clippers’ second-round playoff series against the Utah Jazz on June 14, 2021, the former two-time Finals MVP said he’s more concerned with how well he plays in the postseason than in early December.
“I don’t want to be here tonight,” Leonard said when asked how much this outing was an indication of where he is at in his return. “I’m focusing on the end of the year.
“Playoff basketball. Doesn’t matter about tonight.”
This game, though, matters for the Clippers (16-13). It’s their signature win of the season over the league’s best team at a time when they’ve been searching for rhythm, continuity and consistency amid injuries and minutes restrictions. With Leonard and Paul George playing in just their eighth game on the floor together this season, the Clippers made 10 of 25 3-point attempts, outrebounded the Celtics 46-36 and held Boston (21-7) to just 23.1% shooting from behind the arc.
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Meanwhile, George (26 points) and Leonard combined to outscore Jayson Tatum (20 points) and Jaylen Brown (21 points) 51-41.
The Clippers got a reminder of how good they can be with their two stars on the floor and Leonard looking closer to his old self.
“The last couple games, he’s just playing with more pace,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said. “The longer stretches have definitely helped him get into a more of a rhythm, offensively and defensively.”
Leonard has had a season full of stops and starts. After missing all of last season to rehab his knee, Leonard came off the bench in two of the first three matches but then experienced stiffness in his surgically repaired knee. He missed 12 consecutive games and then came back and played in three games before spraining his right ankle. That cost him another six games before his current return.
Leonard has now played in four of the Clippers’ past five games with the only one he missed being the second of a back-to-back in Miami last week. With his minutes restriction at 30, Leonard scored more than 16 points for the first time this season.
“It’s the same Kawhi,” George said. “He’s just playing more, he’s getting more reps.
“… More than anything, he’s just more aware of his minutes and being on a minute restriction that with the minutes that he does have, he’s going to make them count.”
Lue stated George is no longer on a minutes restriction after he returned last Monday following a seven-game absence due to a hamstring injury. George logged 35 minutes to help the Clippers handle the Celtics.
While the Clippers came from behind against the Cleveland Cavaliers to halt their eight-game winning streak earlier this season and had a 22-point win over the San Antonio Spurs that demonstrated their offensive firepower in November, this was their best win based on how they played on both ends, from start to finish, against the defending Eastern Conference champs.
“We did a great job pretty much across the whole board,” George said. “We got great shots. We shared the ball, we took care of the ball, we played defense. I thought our help side, our activity defensively was great.
“Of course you can nitpick and probably clean up a lot of possessions, but when you look at this game overall, we did pretty much everything that we wanted to do from a game-plan standpoint.”
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