Kawhi Leonard a hero without a mask: Five takeaways from Clippers’ win over Bulls

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks against the Chicago Bulls during the second half.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard dunks during the second half of a 130-127 victory over the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Five takeaways from a 130-127 victory over Chicago that improves the Clippers to 7-4:

1. Kawhi Leonard became the 46th active player to score at least 10,000 career points Sunday. His response? Shrug.

The Clippers presented Leonard with the game ball after a 35-point performance in which 21 were scored in the third quarter, the most he has ever scored in a single quarter. Leonard tied his career high with seven three-pointers and without his custom mask, the one coach Tyronn Lue likened to an “extra defender,” that was ditched after six games.


“That is what he called the mask,” Lue said. “He took it off tonight and had a really good game.”

Kawhi Leonard scores 21 of his 35 points in the third quarter and the Clippers beat the Bulls 130-127 despite 45 points from Zach LaVine.

Jan. 10, 2021

And it was the game Leonard cared about, not the milestone. The win avoided a second consecutive dispiriting loss following Friday’s 22-point blown lead. Chicago was playing without five contributors because of either injuries or health and safety protocols but nearly shot the Clippers out of their own gym.

“Maybe when I retire I’ll sit back and look at the accomplishments,” Leonard said. “But right now it’s about being greedy and wanting more.”

2. Because of Leonard, Paul George’s 28-point, nine-assist, seven-rebound performance went under the radar.

George has now made four or more three-pointers in eight of his 10 games this season. He’s made five or more six times, including Sunday, when he made five of his eight from deep. His passing was just as impactful. The Clippers scored 26 points off his assists.

Chicago coach Billy Donovan, George’s coach in Oklahoma City for two seasons, echoed what George insisted during the early weeks of training camp —
that coming off a healthy offseason, his pair of shoulder surgeries now 18 months behind him, George appears back in the form that made Leonard push for the Clippers to trade for him in 2019.


“He missed a pretty important period of time with the Clippers last year, and I think it’s hard to acclimate to a new team when you’re not there,” Donovan said. “I’m sure he’s a lot more comfortable now. He had to deal with a lot of stuff. I think he probably missed the first half of the [last] season, but I think when he’s healthy and he’s right, you see the way he’s playing right now, I mean, he’s obviously an elite player, a special player and a great guy, but he went through a lot.

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

“He had to play his last year in Oklahoma City, with two torn shoulders and then surgery, and then goes to the Clippers and misses training camp and misses a month of the season and then he’s trying to come back and find his rhythm, and the team probably had their rhythm with the way they were playing, guys were getting injected into the team, they were dealing with some different injuries, so there’s a lot for anybody to go through, when you’re having to deal with what he had to deal with.”

3. George must still get better, however. And limiting his own mistakes, particularly early in games, remains the key area.

Sunday marked the sixth time this season George has turned the ball over at least twice during a first quarter. He’s committed a first-quarter turnover in every game but one.

The silver lining Sunday was that George finished turnover-free for the final three quarters, and one of the mistakes credited to his box score wasn’t his fault. He bounced a pass to Serge Ibaka off of his screen midway through the first quarter but it bounced off the center’s hands, out of bounds.


4. After studying lineup data from the first 10 games, Lue tweaked his rotations and lineups on Saturday. The player most affected is Reggie Jackson.

Jackson had averaged 13 minutes per game off the bench, made 38% of his three-pointers while recording an assist four times as often as he turned the ball over.

His upside has always been on offense, even if his shot selection can leave something to be desired. Defensively, his effectiveness has ebbed and flowed and the three-guard combination including him, Luke Kennard and Lou Williams had proven flammable at times. Based on the data, Lue decided to keep Kennard and Williams in the rotation with the intent of staggering their minutes as much as possible — it wasn’t always so Sunday, because Patrick Beverley’s foul trouble forced Williams to play extended time alongside Kennard in the third quarter. Jackson currently appears to be either the 10th or 11th man in a nine-man rotation.

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.

Jan. 9, 2021

“Reggie has been playing good for us, I thought,” Lue said. “He has had some good stretches. I had to talk to him last night just about staying ready and just trying to stagger Lou and Luke as much as possible so we can always have four defenders on the floor at the same time.”

5. The Bulls committed the Cardinal sin of guarding Williams.

“They let me get left,” Williams said, after scoring the bulk of his season-high 21 points dribbling or running to the favored left side. His production on that side of the floor has helped made him the NBA’s all-time leading scorer off the bench. His first five field goals against Chicago were all the result of Williams going that direction.

“Lou, he didn’t win sixth man for being a passer,” George said. “He is one of the best scorers to do it.”


His lefty midrange fadeaway is so comfortable Williams likened it to a layup. Given the opportunity to shoot it by the Bulls, he seized a badly needed opportunity after scoring in double figures only four times in his first 10 games.

“That’s an energy play,” Williams said. “That’s the equivalent of athletic guys getting a big dunk or defensive-minded guys getting a stop or a big steal. Allowing me to go left that just creates energy, that creates confidence. After that I was just in my bag.”