Inside American Airlines Arena, the Clippers dressed quickly.
It was just before midnight Friday, and there was no rush to turn in early. The team was not scheduled to depart for Orlando, the final stop on its five-city trip, until early the following afternoon, and players, coaches and staffers discussed dinner plans. They had a 122-117 comeback victory against Miami to celebrate.
One by one, the room emptied. Except for the game ball.
First it was tucked under the left arm of a Clippers security guard. Then it was held by Jeremy Castleberry, an assistant coach and one of star forward Kawhi Leonard’s closest friends. Because the ball belonged to Leonard. So did the victory and the history he earned.
A two-time most valuable player of the NBA Finals, two-time champion, defensive player of the year and All-Star, Leonard has accomplished nearly everything a player can in the NBA in nine seasons. But not until Friday had he recorded a triple-double.
Leonard scored 33 points with 10 assists and 10 rebounds in nearly 39 minutes to become only the third Clipper ever to score 30-plus points and record a triple-double, joining Lou Williams and Blake Griffin.
“I guess it’s a great honor,” Leonard said. “But I’m just more happy with the win. That’s it.”
He scored 17 points during a third quarter in which the Clippers outscored Miami 38-20, including a 15-0 run in the final 3:20. His seven points in the final 66 seconds of the fourth secured his seventh consecutive game with at least 30 points and a bounce-back win against a Heat team owning the Eastern Conference’s second-best record, two days after the Leonard-less Clippers lost to Atlanta, a team with the East’s worst.
In the 24 hours that followed Wednesday’s defeat, the Clippers felt an urgency to move past what coach Doc Rivers termed a “terrible” loss.
“We dwelled on it, we talked about it, we voiced our opinions about it once the game was over and on the plane ride as well, possibly the next day,” forward Patrick Patterson said. “But then once you land in Miami and you start to focus on Miami, the previous game’s out the window.”
Jimmy Butler’s 20 points led Miami but he did not return after suffering an ankle sprain with 6:09 left. Even without Butler, the Heat cut what had been an 18-point deficit to three twice in the final 34 seconds. But Leonard, who hit four of nine threes and 11 of 11 free throws, helped ice it.
“[Leonard] definitely showed that he wanted that game,” Miami’s Bam Adebayo said. “We all felt it.”
Off the bench, Williams scored 16 points, Montrezl Harrell had 15, JaMychal Green added 14 and Patterson, a starter to begin the second half, scored 12 in less than 13 minutes.
Role players buoyed the Clippers as Leonard missed nine of his first 11 shots. Paul George missed his eighth straight game with a strained hamstring and Patrick Beverley missed his second with a sore groin. One of the NBA’s most turnover-prone teams, the Clippers committed only eight.
“That’s who they are — a tough-minded group,” Rivers said. “But that was a really quality win because we didn’t have anything in the first quarter. Didn’t have any juice, it felt like. Instead of getting blown out, we hung in there.”
Leonard’s teammates were incredulous he hadn’t had a triple-double. Landry Shamet, who had six three-pointers and a season-high 22 points, called that “crazy.” Shamet kept the Clippers close in a first half in which Miami led by as many as 15 and was a key target of Leonard, who was often double-teamed on pick-and-rolls and found open teammates.
“People in San Antonio and Toronto must not have hit shots,” Patterson said, referencing Leonard’s past teams, “because it’s unbelievable that’s his first one.”
When Leonard rested between the third and fourth quarters, assistant Tyronn Lue congratulated him, and yet “I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Leonard said. “And he said I got my first triple-double.”
What he didn’t know until after the game was that his 10th rebound had been taken away by statisticians in the fourth quarter, leaving him one shy of the feat. It was not until 3:52 remained that he secured his first triple-double, for a second time.
Leonard was last to leave the locker room, the ball tucked securely in his grasp. His plans for the memento?
“Just take it home,” Leonard said. “You know what I mean? I don’t know. Might shoot with it.”