For the Clippers, Thursday began with a series of phone calls from the NBA’s league office and a $50,000 fine.
For their best player, it proceeded to get worse from there.
Only hours after the NBA took the step of publicly detailing that he is suffering from an ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee, Kawhi Leonard indeed did not look right.
The Clippers star forward made only three of his first 13 field goals against Portland at Staples Center and scored nine points through three quarters.
When it mattered most, however, Leonard appeared not only fine but unstoppable.
The NBA’s leading fourth-quarter scorer dropped 18 points in the final 12 minutes to lead the Clippers to a 107-101 victory and establish, once again, that if he is not healthy enough to play every game this season, he is nonetheless capable of taking over those in which he does appear.
“He has an incredible will,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought he felt like he was struggling a little bit.
“He has this, I don’t know what it is, this determination like, ‘I’m going to go get the win.’ He plays the game to win.”
Leonard finished with 27 points, 13 rebounds, six turnovers and four assists in 33 minutes. Teammate Lou Williams made a three-pointer with 32 seconds remaining that turned a one-point Clippers lead into a two-possession game and the arena into a wall of sound.
It was a rare make from beyond the arc, on a night when the Clippers (6-3) made a season-low four three-pointers on 23 attempts.
“Big-time players get themselves going, especially when it’s time to win a game,” said Williams, who scored 26 points off the bench.
Ivica Zubac had 15 points and 13 rebounds, including a career-high nine on the offensive glass and Montrezl Harrell had 15 points, six rebounds and one dousing of Rivers with a tub of ice water afterward in the locker room.
It was a cold commemoration of the coach’s 900th career win, making him the 13th coach in NBA history with as many victories, but the celebration capped a day that began in a far less festive mood, after the league docked the Clippers $50,000 for its handling of Leonard’s absence the day before, against Milwaukee.
Leonard has missed two games already because of load management to a knee and each time the NBA publicly backed the Clippers despite league rules prohibiting teams from resting players for high-profile games. The NBA determined the team was within compliance and would not be fined because the Clippers medical staff had provided the league information about Leonard’s condition ahead of time — information the league’s own medical team determined to be credible.
League officials, then, were frustrated by the comments Rivers made before Wednesday’s tipoff — including that there was “no concern here” about Leonard’s health — that suggested the star forward wasn’t as limited as it seemed.
Leonard called the NBA’s decision to detail the injury “shocking” and was frustrated by the fine levied against the Clippers.
“It’s just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play if they’re not ready but it is what it is,” Leonard said. “I’ve got to do what’s going to make me healthy and going to help the team be successful and that’s me being able to play basketball games for us.”
That knee, of course, has appeared just fine on the nights Leonard has played this season, as he has averaged 29.3 points per game and become the NBA’s top fourth-quarter scorer. Right on cue against Portland (3-5), Leonard dribbled to the free-throw line and made a jump shot with 2:40 remaining to give his team its first lead in nearly 15 minutes.
“Well,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said, “He looked well rested.”
Portland only had temporary answers.
Second-year guard Anfernee Simons scored the Trail Blazers’ first 10 points of the fourth quarter but missed one of his two free throws with 45 seconds left to keep his team down 100-99.
Damian Lillard, the league’s No. 2 fourth-quarter scorer, was held scoreless in the final frame to finish with 22 points.
“It’s the third game we’ve won, in my opinion, completely because of our defense,” Rivers said. “Our offense was below average and we were still able to win. Early going that’s a great sign for a basketball team.”