Kawhi Leonard flashed his top-level playoff form in the series opener as the Los Angeles Clippers showed they are a valid threat to win their first-round series against the Phoenix Suns.
The fifth-seeded Clippers will look to take a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference series when they visit the Suns on Tuesday night.
Sunday’s 115-110 victory represented Leonard’s first playoff game in 22 months since tearing the ACL in his right knee against the Utah Jazz in June of 2021.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP poured in 38 points on 13-of-24 shooting as the underdog Clippers delivered quite the opening salvo against fourth-seeded Phoenix.
Leonard also stole the show from Kevin Durant, who was playing in his first playoff game as a member of the Suns. Durant was acquired from the Brooklyn Nets two months ago with the goal being he could push the franchise over the top in the search for its first NBA title.
Durant recorded 27 points, 11 assists and nine rebounds as Phoenix lost for the first time in his nine games on the floor. But his contributions were dwarfed by Leonard, who also had five rebounds and five assists.
“He is an all-time player, a Hall of Famer,” Leonard said of Durant. “This is what it’s about — you have an opportunity to play great. You just want the opportunity.
“Win, lose or draw, it’s about giving your best out there. And you’re able to play against the best. Just got to keep on having fun with it. It’s good. It’s playoff basketball.”
The Clippers also got a strong effort from Russell Westbrook in the opener despite scoring just nine points on 3-of-19 shooting.
Westbrook added 11 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and two steals and made the play of the game with the Clippers protecting a late three-point lead.
Suns star Devin Booker was driving to the basket when Westbrook blocked the shot and then leaped to get the ball and slam it off Booker’s left leg and out of bounds with 10.1 seconds left to give Los Angeles the possession.
Eric Gordon then sealed the contest with two free throws with 7.9 seconds left.
“My whole career I pride myself every season to do everything,” Westbrook said. “I think I’m one of those guys who can do everything each and every night. … Whatever is needed of me to win the game, I’ll do it.”
Phoenix had trouble from the outset and trailed by 16 early in the second quarter. The Suns eventually used a 15-0 run in the third quarter to move ahead but the Clippers were the sharper team down the stretch.
“We understand it is not going to be easy,” said Booker, who scored 26 points. “It gets harder from here. Thinking back to my first (playoffs), every loss is the worst thing ever and every win (you feel) you are going to win the rest of them. That’s just how the playoffs go.”
Phoenix received a big effort from Torrey Craig, who scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting. Chris Paul registered 11 rebounds and 10 assists but tallied just seven points.
Suns coach Monty Williams didn’t like the end result but wasn’t about to let anxiety slip in.
“It’s one game,” Williams said. “We’ll look at film, regroup and get ready for a big game here when we show up on Tuesday.”
Gordon also had a solid scoring game with 19 points for the Clippers. He figures to be a primary option with Paul George (knee) sidelined and possibly not recovering in time to play in the series.
–Field Level Media