Kawhi Leonard can’t cap Clippers comeback with last-second shot in loss to Spurs

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard defends against San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, defends against San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the second quarter on Tuesday at Staples Center.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The crowd noise pumping through an empty Staples Center couldn’t have been more fake, but the unraveling of the San Antonio Spurs, during a fourth quarter when the recorded noise seemed to grow only louder with every basket of a Clippers comeback, was undeniably real.

A 15-point Spurs lead with five minutes remaining was down to single digits with 3:31 left, then just two with 13 seconds to play.

Two days removed from holding off an opponent’s second-half rally, Clippers reserves stood by their seats, now savoring the sight of a sliced lead.


Kawhi Leonard, having another big night against his old team, was unable to shake loose for a potential tying shot and passed to Luke Kennard at the top of the three-point arc, but his shot misfired and the Spurs’ Patty Mills made one of two free throws at the other end.

“He’s one of the greatest players in basketball; he made the right play,” Clippers guard Patrick Beverley said of Leonard’s pass.

Clippers forward Paul George was a late scratch for Tuesday’s game against the Spurs because of a sore right ankle that he tweaked Sunday in a win over Phoenix.

Jan. 5, 2021

Given one more chance to tie, Leonard missed a leaning three-pointer from 26 feet in front of his team’s bench at the buzzer. As Leonard leaned over, the speakers momentarily cut to silence, the soundtrack of a slow walk to the locker room after a 116-113 defeat Tuesday night.

The ending spoiled Leonard’s 30-point, 10-assist performance that sparked his team’s comeback from a deficit of 24 points.

“We didn’t come out with no urgency,” Leonard said. “The Spurs played harder than us in that first quarter. We really didn’t touch the paint on the offensive end, got some quick shots up and then from there we started to build and get a rhythm.”

Nicolas Batum scored 21 points and Beverley had 20 points with eight rebounds and eight assists, but Mills was a dagger in the Clippers’ back by making a career-high eight three-pointers en route to 27 points off the bench to lead the Spurs (3-4), who made 20 of 40 three-pointers.


“He opened it up for those guys the way he was shooting the ball,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.

It was the first time this season the Clippers (5-3) played without Paul George, who was ruled out a half-hour before tipoff after he “tweaked his ankle a little bit” Sunday against Phoenix, Lue said.

Even with a hurt right ankle, George scored 39 points in that victory and pushed his season averages to 25.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists while making 49.2% of his three-pointers.

“He’s in a really good groove,” Lue said.

His team couldn’t find its own against San Antonio.

After missing their first six shots, including five three-pointers, to trail by nine after four minutes, the Clippers closed to within one on a rare Reggie Jackson dunk late in the first quarter. Yet that rally belied the impact of George’s absence. Already down one starter in Marcus Morris, Lue didn’t have the luxury of staggering Leonard and George’s minutes to keep at least one star on the floor. Leonard played the entire first quarter, about two minutes longer than a normal rotation, and while catching his breath for five minutes to begin the second, saw the Clippers get outscored 15-3 to trail by 21.

Veteran forward Nicolas Batum is off to a good start in his first season with the Clippers after a lackluster last 18 months he experienced with Charlotte.

Jan. 4, 2021

“Early on we settled for the three-point shot too early,” Lue said. “I think Serge [Ibaka] took two quick early ones, and I think we had one more, instead of attacking the basket with them not having too much shot-blocking. The way we started the game offensively has a lot to do with our defense.”

Despite facing double teams, Leonard scored 17 first-half points on an efficient 58% shooting, then made his first four shots of the second half, including a right-handed dunk in traffic.


His hot start mirrored that of his team, which made nine of its first 10 shots after halftime and shot 76% in the quarter to outscore the Spurs by 18, an offensive explosion keyed by the very thing the Clippers could not do in the first half — make three-pointers. After making three of 17 shots from deep in the first half, they made seven in the third quarter.

But as soon as the Clippers took a one-point lead to open the fourth quarter, the Spurs answered by scoring 12 consecutive points. The Clippers played from behind the rest of the way.