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Kawhi Leonard and Clippers outduel Zach LaVine and Bulls

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives against Bulls guard Zach LaVine.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives against Bulls guard Zach LaVine on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
(Roberth Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The mask was off, and the comeback was on.

Playing without the clear, customized face covering that, for the past 10 days, had protected eight stitches near his jaw and lips while it frustrated him because of its discomfort, Kawhi Leonard looked like a new man in the second half Sunday inside Staples Center.

So did his team as a result.

The Clippers’ rally in an eventual 130-127 victory was sparked by Leonard’s 35-point scoring outburst to outduel Zach LaVine’s 45 points and the short-handed but hot-shooting Chicago Bulls.

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“They were in control of the game for almost three quarters and Kawhi decided that he was going to be more aggressive on the offensive end and was able to carry us to a tie ball game going into that fourth quarter,” said teammate Lou Williams, who scored a season-high 21 points. “I think that was the perfect timing when we needed him.”

The Clippers trailed by 13 points in the first half and nine in the third even though the Bulls (4-7) were missing five players — who combined for an average of 44 points per game — because of a mixture of injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

During a third quarter when the shooting resembled a video game with the defensive settings turned to low, Leonard scored 21 points, his career high for any quarter, and LaVine had 15, with each seeming to gain momentum from the other as they traded baskets.

Forward Kawhi Leonard says the Clippers ‘have to change ... we’ve got to get better’ after letting 22-point lead vanish in loss to Golden State Warriors.

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When Leonard rose from 27 feet to make the first of five three-pointers in the quarter just more than two minutes in, Chicago’s lead was trimmed to four. Fourteen seconds later, LaVine’s rejoinder came from 28 feet.

LaVine was so comfortable operating pick-and-roll plays against the Clippers’ defense that all eight of his shots in the third quarter came from behind the arc, making five.

Whatever the Clippers (7-4) planned for their third-quarter offense was scrapped during a five-minute span in which Leonard scored 17 points, never missing a shot. It included a rare alley-oop in which Leonard ran the baseline, caught a one-handed pass fired by Paul George, who contributed 28 points, from 30 feet away, and dunked over the back of Chicago’s Denzel Valentine.

“I thought the team did a good job of just recognizing that he had it,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “… We needed every bit of it.”

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The Clippers shot 48% overall and made 20 of their 38 three-pointers, only the fifth time in the franchise’s history they made at least 20 from deep. Chicago (4-7) shot 61% and made 18 three-pointers.

Williams played his best game this season within rotations changed by Lue the night before, the coach saying the first 10 games were enough for him to make changes that included breaking up a bench lineup featuring guards Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and Williams.

Leonard cooled in the fourth quarter, making one of his five shots, and fell awkwardly in the final minute, holding his left knee after attempting a layup. He finished the game, however, and said he will be ready to play Wednesday against New Orleans.

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Highlights from the Clippers’ win over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.

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The Clippers took a lead with 2 minutes 30 seconds remaining on a four-point play by Nicolas Batum that sent teammates jumping on his back and an assistant tapping Batum’s head. One minute later, Williams stripped Chicago’s Coby White in the backcourt and scored at the other end for a five-point lead and more sideline celebrations.

“It’s going to come a point in all of our careers where if you even get close to dunking the basketball it’s going to be celebrated,” the 34-year-old Williams said. “I am coming to the realization that’s where I am in my career.”

LaVine scored 14 points to help Chicago shoot 57% in the final quarter but his worst miss came when his team could least afford it. With Patrick Beverley stuck to his hip defensively, the former UCLA star rose with 11 seconds left for a potential game-tying three-pointer — only for it to miss the rim.

“We got out and made turnovers, made plays at the end of that game to push us over that lead, but we’re not where we want to be,” Leonard said. “We want to get better but you’ve got to give Chicago credit, they played a great game. When you watch it they was making a lot of shots when we was there.”

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Though Leonard had averaged 23.0 points, 6.3 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 39% three-point shooting while wearing the mask for six games, its unique design, which required covering his jawline because of where he’d been hit by an elbow during a Christmas victory in Denver, left a small hole for his mouth, making breathing difficult.

Teammates dubbed him “Leatherface.”

Against Chicago, he was the difference.

On “one end, we’re frustrated that we keep letting [LaVine] get open looks or looks that he liked,” George said. “But then on the other end, our end, we were happy and excited that Kawhi had it going and we wanted to keep finding him.”


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