Back from injury, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George eager to find their rhythm
With their two leading scorers together for the first time since Feb. 3, the Clippers revealed their potential in Friday’s win over the surging Utah Jazz, who entered with the NBA’s best record having won 20 of their last 21 games.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George believed the Clippers’ 116-112 victory at Staples Center revealed only a glimpse of the level their team can reach, because the performance also showed that their rhythm, and that of their team, isn’t yet all the way back.
After missing seven games because of swelling in a toe on his right foot, George scored 15 points in 27 minutes and said he wasn’t physically ready yet to approach anything near his season average of 34 minutes per game.
“Got to get back to that basketball conditioning and get that wind back to where it was,” George said. “As much as I would’ve loved to play, I probably would’ve hurt the team being on the floor past the minutes I played.”
George tested his recovery in recent days during full-court work that was encouraging because of the lack of swelling afterward, coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff.
With Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Nicolas Batum back from injuries and in the starting lineup, the Clippers had enough to top the Utah Jazz 116-112 on Friday night.
The injury had appeared to be a surprise earlier this month, when George was sidelined following a 36-point performance Feb. 3 in Cleveland that included eight-of-nine shooting on three-pointers. Yet during that game, the team’s second in as many nights, swelling that had already been bothering him worsened.
“I had a stretch where we were playing every other day so I had time to kind of recover going into the games,” George said. “If you recall we played Brooklyn and then we played Cleveland, two tough games that really caused me to have to dig down and push and plant and play off those toes. Just that back-to-back kind of tipped me overboard and I couldn’t recover, I needed some time off because it was swelled up.
“When it happened I thought it was just a sore toe but [swelling] would go down, have a day off, play on it and it’d come back. But it wasn’t as severe as it was again when we had to take a couple days, it was about a couple weeks, to kind of recover and get back playing on the court.”
No stranger to protecting his body after an elbow to his jaw in December required him to wear a clear, custom facemask earlier this season, Leonard donned a compression sleeve with padding covering his left leg underneath his knee against Utah after a three-game absence because of a contusion in that lower leg. Unlike George and Nicolas Batum, who returned from a two-game absence because of a concussion, Leonard didn’t play under a minutes restriction. He finished with 29 points, including 17 in the second half, in 38 minutes.
Highlights from the Clippers’ 116-112 victory over the Utah Jazz on Friday night at Staples Center.
The trio was part of a starting lineup that, after not playing together since Jan. 24, outscored Utah by five in their first five minutes but was outscored by six in as many minutes to begin the third quarter. It was the last time they played together on the night; in the fourth quarter’s final 5 minutes, Lue played his usual starters with the exception of center Serge Ibaka, who was swapped out for forward Marcus Morris in a play to neutralize the effectiveness of Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
“We’re all pros, I think that starting lineup all played 10-plus years so that’s how we can sort of get a rhythm early,” Leonard said. “But it takes time, you haven’t seen those bodies on the floor. Obviously, playing with me and PG is a lot different. We might isolate sometimes or take some tough shots so it’s just all that combined. And that’s why we got to keep playing and staying healthy.”
The Clippers (22-9) were frustrated by the way they closed out the victory, particularly the fouls that allowed a 16-5 run by Utah (24-6) to pull within two points with 13 seconds remaining.
“We definitely got to be better than that,” said guard Patrick Beverley, who scored 10 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter. “I mean, obviously, you know they’re the No. 1 team in the NBA, and they’re No. 1 for a reason. You got to give them ultimate respect, they didn’t go down, they kept fighting, and that’s what you expect but we, I think, we fouled every time coming down.”
The finish only increased the significance of Leonard’s pair of clutch offensive rebounds with one minute left, which extended their possession when Utah needed all the time it could get to attempt its comeback.
George finished a nine-point first quarter with a flourish, his fade-away jump shot over both Rudy Gobert and Royce O’Neale beating the buzzer, then made two of his next eight shots. He and Leonard each had two turnovers. Batum didn’t score or record an assist in 31 minutes.
“I loved the way they competed,” Lue said of his returning starters. “I thought their competitive spirit was great. But overall, just as far as the floor game, I thought it was a little rusty as far as the speed of the game and making plays and ballhandling. But that is going to come back for sure.”
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