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Kawhi Leonard returns, but Clippers lose to Nuggets and slip to fourth in West

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets guard Austin Rivers during the Clippers’ 110-104 loss Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Once Anthony Davis’ tendinosis subsided and his Achilles tendon was healthy enough to play on last week, and LeBron James returned from his severely strained ankle Friday, the most-watched right leg in the NBA belonged to Kawhi Leonard.

Sidelined for all but one game since April 11 with what had been referred to opaquely as soreness in his right foot, the Clippers All-Star looked just fine from the very first possession Saturday at Staples Center, planting both feet and rising to catch an alley-oop layup above Denver’s defenders. He showed plenty of confidence in the third quarter too, when he drove to his right on the right wing before juking to the left behind a hard plant on the foot, leaving his defender, Aaron Gordon, several feet away helpless as Leonard sank a three-pointer.

“I’m feeling good,” Leonard said on a postgame videoconference. “We took the proper steps to get me right and make sure nothing significant is wrong with me.”

Leonard’s return helped the Clippers start Saturday on the right foot — an 11-point lead within five minutes, courtesy of seven consecutive made shots.

Kawhi Leonard will play Saturday night when the Clippers face the Denver Nuggets, and Patrick Beverley’s return to the starting lineup also appears imminent.

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By the end of a 110-104 loss, however, they were headed in the wrong direction in the standings.

As Leonard’s efficiency slowed in the second half and Paul George struggled to find his offensive rhythm, Denver’s Nikola Jokic scored 30 points with 14 rebounds, seven assists and no turnovers to burnish his most-valuable-player credentials and move the Nuggets into third in the Western Conference by bumping the Clippers into fourth, a half-game behind, with just two weeks to play in the regular season.

“He just changes the game,” George said. “He’s just been a tough cover for us.”

Clippers guard Paul George shoots over Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap.
Clippers guard Paul George shoots over Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap during the first half of Saturday’s game at Staples Center.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
Clippers center Ivica Zubac dunks over Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr. during the first half Saturday.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Denver now owns the tiebreaker in the season series. The season-ending knee injury to guard Jamal Murray that seemed to deal a death blow to its championship hopes? The Nuggets are 9-1 since, with Murray hopping around in the final moments Saturday near the team’s bench, only days after he underwent surgery in Los Angeles.

“With the amount of talent that the Clippers have, to hold them to 104 points on 43% from the field is tremendous,” Denver coach Michael Malone said.

The Clippers have lost three consecutive games, their longest losing streak since a three-game rut entering March’s All-Star break. Leonard scored 16 points in 30 minutes while adding six assists and five rebounds.
“I don’t know if it was fatigue or what, I just thought he really eased into it. I mean he didn’t play at his normal pace of attacking and getting to the basket like he usually does,” coach Tyronn Lue said. “That’s to be expected, but it’s just good to have him back.”

George scored a team-high 20 points but needed 21 shots, and his frustration was evident during the third quarter when his flagrant foul, away from the ball, led to free throws that allowed Denver a 7-0 run that quickly took back the lead the Clippers had briefly retaken.

“It was just a tough, struggling night for me,” George said.

Highlights from the Clippers’ 110-104 loss to the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center on Saturday.

The Clippers are now 28-10 when both Leonard and George play.

“A few of his looks, he would like to have back,” Lue said of George. “But five for 21 is a good sign, because if he’s missing, he’s not afraid to keep shooting. So we’re going to need that from him going down the stretch.”

Lue closed the fourth with Rajon Rondo (18 points) and DeMarcus Cousins (16 points) while sitting usual fourth-quarter center Ivica Zubac, whose typically stalwart defense did little against Jokic’s variety of turnaround jumpers, three-pointers and rim attacks.

Denver began its comeback in the second quarter by targeting backup forward Patrick Patterson, whose struggles typified a difficult night for Clippers reserves outside of Rondo and Cousins. The Nuggets (43-21), meanwhile, received boosts from JaMychal Green and Paul Millsap in the first half.

In the third quarter, Jokic took over by scoring 18 points, and his two-man game with Michael Porter Jr., who scored 25 points, exposed the seams in a Clippers defense still adjusting to life with Leonard back in the lineup.

Guard Yogi Ferrell agreed to a contract with the Clippers that runs through the end of this season and includes a nonguarantee for 2021-22.

Since the All-Star break the Clippers (43-22) have rolled through their schedule despite long-term injuries to Serge Ibaka and Patrick Beverley. Then Leonard went down. Signs of normality are emerging. Beverley could return for the first time since April 8 in the coming days if his fractured left hand continues to recover. Ibaka is back on the practice court.

But with each former piece of the lineup reinserted into the puzzle that is the Clippers’ 15-man roster, there will be adjustments to make and new lineups to tinker with, Lue said. Lue is glad to have more players available, but the growing pains this late in the season have put the Clippers in a difficult position with the postseason looming.

“A bit of a challenge,” George said. “… It’s just about keep playing at a high level until we get back healthy.”


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