Clippers explain why Kawhi Leonard came off bench in win over Lakers

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard points to a teammate after scoring against the Lakers.
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard played his first meaningful game in 16 months in the team’s season-opening victory over the Lakers on Thursday night.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Kawhi Leonard waited 493 days to play in an NBA regular-season game before the Clippers’ season opener — then he had to wait a bit longer before his return from knee surgery became official.

Leonard played off of the bench during the Clippers’ 103-97 victory over the Lakers at Arena on Thursday night, the first time the two-time most valuable player of the NBA Finals had not started since Nov. 10, 2013.

Leonard finished with 14 points on six-of-12 shooting, and added seven rebounds and two assists in 21 carefully scripted minutes that helped the Clippers win their eighth consecutive head-to-head game against the Lakers.

“Like I told [coach Tyronn] Lue, whatever way with his subs and what he thinks how it should go without me affecting the game and causing people to get out of rhythm, I’m for it,” Leonard said. “I just want to win.”


The Lakers lose their home opener to the Clippers, who had six players score in double figures although they were forced into 22 turnovers.

Oct. 20, 2022

The decision to bring Leonard off the bench reflected the Clippers’ ultra-cautious approach to ramping up Leonard’s workload while balancing their ultimate goal of keeping him healthy entering the postseason. The decision was reached after a discussion within the team that considered several factors but was based on a clear top priority: How to ensure that Leonard will be available for the most impactful minutes, such as late in the fourth quarter.

Leonard is not being limited to a defined number of minutes. Instead, the team is gauging his workload in real time by monitoring certain markers, including the length and intensity of his playing stints and how much time elapses between those stints. Closing games would not be possible if Leonard started, the team reasoned, because of a wariness regarding how long he would sit.

“Starting I would have been sitting like 35 minutes real time, so that’s way too long so I just felt that this was the best situation,” Leonard said.

After sitting the entire first quarter, Leonard played the final six minutes 25 seconds before halftime, checking in with the Clippers holding a 12-point lead. He received notable applause despite the atmosphere of a Lakers home game. Leonard quickly made his first two shots, the first a midrange pull-up jumper before backing down Juan Toscano-Anderson and taking a turnaround jumper.

“I thought he looked good,” Lue said. “I thought he got tired in stretches, but I thought he had good pop to start the game after sitting for so long.”

Clippers guard John Wall drives through the Lakers defense to score.
Clippers guard John Wall drives through the Lakers defense to score in the second quarter Thursday.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Waiting nearly 18 minutes of game time was a small price, Leonard said.

“It was long,” Leonard said. “But I waited 82 games last year, so I didn’t think 15 minutes would be that long.”

The Clippers’ first substitute, John Wall, had endured his own long layoff — 545 days — before Thursday’s return to an NBA court. The five-time All-Star point guard made his first two jump shots from the midrange before darting to the rim for a layup that showed the quickness the Clippers believed was a missing element. Wall, 32, finished with 15 points and three assists, making seven of 15 shots.

“I was geeked,” Wall said of his return. “I ain’t gonna lie.”

Leonard, 31, has attempted to temper expectations for his initial production as he builds up to his usual workload after a long layoff. After making his first two baskets, he missed his next three shots to end the first half and couldn’t find an open teammate after being swarmed by two defenders on the final possession of the half. The Clippers as a whole showed rust for several stretches, losing their 16-point lead in the final five minutes of the first half through a mix of five turnovers and sloppy defense. They finished with 22 turnovers and nine missed free throws.

Lue and the Clippers reiterated that their priority is ensuring Leonard will be at his best come the spring.


“It’s going to be some times where he looks like Kawhi Leonard and some times where he’s just trying to get a feel and not playing well,” Lue said.

“He has to understand that as great as he is, it’s not going to come overnight. We’ve got to be patient with him in that regard and he has to be patient with himself as well.”

Leonard played the first six minutes of the second half before reentering for a third time with eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter and the Clippers trailing 89-87. He missed his first shot, but his offensive rebound led to a Reggie Jackson three-pointer.

The plan to make Leonard a reserve was “everybody’s idea,” Lue said, adding that Leonard’s usage will adapt as his readiness progresses.

“It’s not like it’s going to be long-term, it can always change if he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it and it’s something we can do better for him,” Lue said. “Tonight’s how it’s going to go and we’ll see how it goes from there.”