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Kawhi Leonard is a new man: Five takeaways from the Clippers’ win over Portland

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tries to regain his balance while being covered by Portland guard CJ McCollum.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard tries to regain his balance while being covered by Portland guard CJ McCollum on Wednesday at Staples Center.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Five takeaways from the Clippers’ 128-105 victory Wednesday against Portland, their second blowout win in as many nights before beginning a two-game trip against Utah and Phoenix:

1. The difference in Kawhi Leonard could not be missed Wednesday. And not only because he was wearing a mask that has led his teammates to dub him “Leatherface.”

In his return to action after missing his last two games because of a laceration that led to stitches on the inside of his lips and mouth, Leonard scored 28 points with seven assists and was both a contributor to, and beneficiary of, the Clippers’ crisp offensive execution. Getting comfortable to return to the court has taken several days as the team waited for Leonard to be able to open his mouth and speak, he said. Then a custom mask was created to protect his cheeks and jawline while keeping his nose and eyes exposed — a mask unique enough to lead to ribbing from his teammates.

It hasn’t been the only change about Leonard noticed in recent days and weeks. Leonard’s reputation was built as much on his on-court excellence as his off-court reticence in the public eye. Yet at a time when interviews no longer take place in the locker room but remotely over videoconference — a setup that often leads to stilted answers and miscommunication — Leonard has appeared more comfortable than ever, offering answers that can be expansive and introspective, and that suggest he has felt increasingly comfortable within the Clippers organization in his second season with the team.

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Spurs assistant Becky Hammon was prepared when she became the first woman to serve as an NBA head coach after Gregg Popovich was ejected against L.A.

The change could be tied to several factors, but Serge Ibaka, his former teammate in Toronto who signed as a free agent last month, appears to be important. Ibaka brought out a different side of Leonard while with the Raptors and the same might be happening with the Clippers. It was Ibaka who said he told Leonard at the start of training camp that if he became a more engaging leader, the roster would follow his example. The two clearly have trust in one another. It’s why, after Ibaka’s errant elbow led to Leonard’s stitches, Leonard singled the 7-foot center out with a rare joke.

“Serge can’t talk too much, we’ve got him on the trading block right now,” Leonard said. “Whoever wants him, let us know. We’re trying to trade Serge.”

Leonard later touched on requisite basketball topics before being asked whether a difficult 2020 had led him to appreciate basketball more.

“Everything that everyone’s going through in the world with this pandemic, losing loved ones, it puts a perspective on life,” Leonard said. “You know, we’re only here so long and life in general goes by fast, and even playing in this league goes by even sooner, so you can’t be stressing on the floor. You have to really enjoy these moments because either down by 20 or up by 20 in a game, this is the most fun you’re going to have in basketball.

“You know, our careers don’t go till we’re 60, so some of us are going to be done at 40 years old, so you just got to enjoy this moment, I believe.”

2. Coach Tyronn Lue said his team would move the ball better under his watch and through three games, the Clippers have recorded 30 or more assists three times, including in back-to-back games Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time in six years.

“We’re playing trusting basketball, everybody is on a string,” guard Lou Williams said. “We know we have a lot of guys who are capable and we’re just playing with trust and playing freely so we’ve got to give a lot of credit to T-Lue and his system.”

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3. When it came to the back-and-forth jabs the Clippers and Trail Blazers took at one another during the summer, the Clippers said bygones were bygones entering Wednesday’s matchup.

“Literally wasn’t mentioned one time,” Williams said. “Everything in the bubble is the past. We like to forget about that whole experience, to be honest with you.”

Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard took umbrage at the opposing bench celebrations led by Patrick Beverley and Paul George in August, after Lillard missed a critical free throw late in an eventual Clippers victory. The verbal jabs in the arena became digital swipes on Instagram that even involved family members of the players taking part.

Lue didn’t buy that his team was any more focused for Lillard on Wednesday, or that they expected the star guard to be more focused on them.

“I think if you watch Dame play, he’s ready to destroy any team that he plays against,” Lue said. “It’s just not from trash talking or what happened last year in the bubble.”

Portland's Damian Lillard, left, is covered by Clippers guard Patrick Beverley.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

4. Backup guard Reggie Jackson wants to be the team’s “steady hand” but struggled to find consistency in his own performances since joining the team at midseason last year. Yet quietly, in wins against Minnesota and Portland on consecutive nights, he has put together strong games by shooting a combined 8-of-15 from the field, with six assists and no turnovers. It has helped, he said recently, that he can look for guidance to a coaching staff featuring four former point guards — Lue, Chauncey Billups, Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson.

The Clippers wanted to upgrade their playmaking at point guard this offseason but, without much financial flexibility, couldn’t bring in fresh blood. If Nicolas Batum, a wing who has displayed excellent court vision, and Jackson continue to play as they have in recent games, the team’s answer might already be found on their roster.

5. With Leonard back in the lineup, Luke Kennard returned to the bench and had fewer opportunities to impact the game than against Dallas and Minnesota, but his only made field goal of the first half was telling. Kennard was standing in the corner during the first half when the ball whipped out to him from a pass in the paint. A wide-open Paul George stood about 15 feet to Kennard’s right on the wing, his hands out waiting for a catch-and-shoot opportunity. Instead, Kennard kept the ball, pump-faking an onrushing defender out of his way before rising to make a three-pointer.

The moment could have read as Kennard passing up an opportunity to give one of the Clippers’ best three-point shooters an open look. Yet consider the context: Given how much the Clippers have urged Kennard to fire away since he arrived via trade in November, the decision almost assuredly left the team pleased.


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