Kawhi returns as Clippers fall to Mavs in Game 2

Kiyoshi Mio-USA TODAY Sports
The Sporting Tribune's Mark Medina writes Kawhi Leonard felt good in his return but it wasn't enough as Dallas ties their series.

LOS ANGELES — In what marked his first Clippers’ playoff home game before a full-capacity crowd in five years, Kawhi Leonard still maintained a stoic expression during an otherwise hyped starting lineup introduction.

Though he has remained the franchise’s cornerstone since joining the Clippers in 2019, Leonard did not dramatically enhance the team’s fortunes, either. The Clippers labored through a 96-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series on Tuesday at Arena. That coincided with Leonard struggling with both his shot: 17 points on 7-for-17 shooting and 0-for-5 shooting. That coincided with Leonard adjusting to his timing and conditioning in 35 minutes after missing the final eight regular-season games and Game 1 with right knee inflammation.

Afterwards, Leonard offered the most relevant big-picture perspective on his return. That entailed the latest on if he felt any additional pain during and after his return.

“No, I feel good,” Leonard said. “I felt pretty good in the game.”

Technically, the Clippers’ difference between their win in Game 1 and their loss in Game 2 boiled down to two developments: After shooting efficiently in Game 1 (46% overall, 50% from deep), the Clippers struggled making shots (36.8% overall, 26.7% from 3) while handling the Mavericks’ increased physicality. After the Clippers’ Paul George, James Harden, Ivica Zubac, Russell Westbrook and Norman Powell all elevated their play to compensate for Leonard’s absence in Game 1, the Clippers initially struggled with incorporating Leonard during his first game since March 31.

Yet, the Clippers recognized the bigger picture. Though the Mavericks technically stole home-court advantage to tie the series at 1-1 entering Game 3 in Dallas on Friday, the Clippers have clarity that they will actually have their star player available for the playoffs. Though Leonard struggled with his rust and shooting accuracy, he made up for it with seven rebounds and four steals. After not even completing a contact practice leading into Game 2, Leonard may have time both to recover and increase his workload before Game 3.

“Kawhi is one of the best in the world. He’s going to find his rhythm,” George said. “We’re going to find our rhythm around him. We feel good about it.

“I  don’t ever like to take or look at moral victories. We lost, which is frustrating and upsetting. But it is great having #2 back there with us. We’ll all adjust. We’ll get our timing back and our rhythm back, and get in a better flow.”

That didn’t happen in Game 2 right away.

Though Leonard forced Mavericks guard Kyrie Irving to commit a turnover only 75 seconds into the game, Leonard missed an open pull-up jumper at the 10:09 mark and an open 3 at the 6:17 mark. After stealing a pass from Dallas guard Luke Doncic to open the second quarter, Leonard missed a layup, made a pull-up jumper and committed a 24-second shot-clock violation. Add it all up, and Leonard finished the first half with only four points on 2-for-6 shooting.

And yet. …

“I thought he did a good job,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “I thought he didn’t try to force anything in the first half. He let the game come to him.”

As a result, Leonard also collected three rebounds and three steals in the first half. Beginning in the third quarter, Lue then observed that Leonard “took over the game.”

That’s when Leonard posted eight points on a 4-for-7 clip along with two rebounds and a steal. During a time that Leonard normally thrives, he scored only three points on a 1-for-4 clip in the fourth quarter. By that point, the Clippers expected he would feel tired.

“I’m not measuring it,” Leonard said. “We got to be better as a unit overall. It starts with me. Even if my wind is low, I have to find a way.”

Presumably, Leonard will have a better opportunity to do that with a contact practice and another game. That only begs the question on whether he can stay healthy.

He tore a meniscus in his right knee last year during Game 2 of the Clippers’ first-round playoff series against Phoenix. He tore the ACL in his right knee during Game 5 of the Clippers’ second-round series against Utah in 2021, which sidelined him for the rest of the playoffs and for the entire 2021-22 season.

“I haven’t compared those at all,” Leonard said. “My focus was trying to get back on the court tonight so I could play throughout these playoffs. Maybe I got to sit back and think about that. But that wasn’t on my mind.”

Neither was the misguided notion that the Clippers should feel relieved for finally having a clean bill of health for the first time since the 2020 playoffs. Yes, the Clippers are further removed from their missed playoff appearance in 2022 during Leonard’s season-long ACL injury and when George missed the entire first round last year after missing the final eight regular-season games with an injured right knee.

Yet, the Clippers stayed reasonably healthy during the 2021 postseason until Leonard unexpectedly injured his ACL in Game 5 against Utah. The Clippers infamously squandered a 3-1 series lead to Denver in the NBA bubble partly because overlapping injuries and ailments during that season contributed to disjointed chemistry.

As for this season? Though the Clippers maintained Leonard did not experience any structural issues, his inflammation prevented him from even completing a full practice. The Clippers initially diagnosed Leonard with having right knee soreness before eventually determined he had inflammation.

“I don’t think of it like that,” Leonard said. “I’m just taking it one game at a time.

“We’re trying to win the series. That’s not my thought process right now.”

At least in the short term, though, the Clippers have an easy adjustment to make in Game 3 to counter Doncic, Irving and the Mavericks’ physicality. The Clippers expect to see a much better version of Leonard.

“It’s great to have that back,” George said. “But obviously it’s a little adjustment with him coming back and him getting his rhythm and us playing while having our best player back on the floor with us.”

Mark Medina is a Lakers/Clippers writer for Sporting Tribune. Follow him on XInstagramFacebook and Threads