Kawhi Leonard scores 33 as Clippers hold off Bulls

Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams dunks the ball in front of Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Norman Powell.
Chicago Bulls forward Patrick Williams dunks the ball in front of Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard (2) and Norman Powell (24) on Tuesday in Chicago.
(Erin Hooley / Associated Press)

Scrolling through the night’s box score on his phone, Nicolas Batum sat at his locker, his eye brows seeming to raise higher with every shooting statistic he read aloud.

The Clippers forward made two of his 10 shots Tuesday inside the United Center.

Luke Kennard, one of the NBA’s most consistent shooters, shot 0 for 6.

Reggie Jackson, the reserve experiencing a rejuvenating last two weeks since losing his spot in the rotation, was one for nine. And Terance Mann, so often the Clippers’ infusion of energy, had made one of his six shots.


The Clippers could not make an open three-pointer, making 12 of their 44 overall from deep. They could not take a lead until 28 minutes in. And once they had it, they could not protect it, an eight-point lead with six minutes left dwindling to one in the final minute.

“And we won,” Batum said.

The Clippers’ dynamic duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George has 12 games ahead that won’t be played on back-to-back nights as they look to make a move.

Jan. 30, 2023

There were two reasons why this ended in a 108-103 win that gives the Clippers (29-25) six wins in their last seven games. Only one was surprising.

Norman Powell, the reserve guard who has averaged 13.2 points and made 50% of his three-pointers since Jan. 6, again provided life when the offense was in danger of coming apart. His 15 second-quarter points brought the Clippers back from the brink after they trailed by as many as 19, erasing the deficit in only five minutes. He got to the line 10 times, making all 10, his ability to draw fouls continuing to be unique on this roster. He finished with 27, outscoring the Bulls bench by himself.

Fouled on a drive to the rim with 10.8 seconds left, Powell made both free throws for a three-point lead.

“Instant offense,” coach Tyronn Lue said.

But it was the other reason that made this such an unusual sight. It was the very thing they had struggled to master for the past month: playing effective defense, the kind that held the Bulls to 45 points after halftime and induce 20 turnovers, the last Kawhi Leonard’s strip of Zach LaVine with five seconds to play and the Clippers hanging onto a three-point lead.

Clippers guard Paul George slaps the ball away from Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan.
Clippers guard Paul George, right, slaps the ball away from Chicago Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan during the first half on Tuesday in Chicago.
(Erin Hooley / Associated Press)

“The reason we’ve been winning is because our defense has picked it up and it’s carried us on a night like tonight,” said Paul George, who scored 16 points in 40 minutes. “The luxury is we got guys who can make shots and put the ball in the basket on most nights.

“I think we caught our rhythm because of our defense and stayed in the game.”

Said Lue: “We went small and I thought our small unit did a really good job of getting us back in the game. Defensively it got us back in the game, was able to get out in transition and get a couple easy ones and it kind of got us going.”

This Clippers victory wasn’t pretty.

Yet it was, in its own way, progress.

From Dec. 23 to Jan. 20, the Clippers ranked fourth-worst in the NBA in half-court defense, the same category they had been top five in for much of the season to that point. In the six games since, they are 5-1 and rank 13th in average points per play allowed.

With Kawhi Leonard and Paul George sitting out, the Cleveland Cavaliers jump out to a 40-point lead before cruising to a 122-99 win over the Clippers.

Jan. 29, 2023

The rebound has been, in large part, about finally having consistent lineups, with Leonard and George back healthy, which in part has boosted communication between defenders, Leonard and Powell said.

Coaches had noticed slippage in pick-and-roll defense and limiting transition points. On Tuesday, they noticed the way they disrupted Chicago, which was out of character for a Clippers defense whose 4.6 steals per game ranks 25th.

“It was just that trust factor and us being better,” said reserve Robert Covington.

“That was the biggest thing was trusting the process and trusting the game and trusting each other. Once we started to do that we started to see the shift change of how we play and everything.”


The defense has “been up and down but we got to keep getting better,” said Leonard, who scored 33 points in a season-high 40 minutes, his career-high 11th consecutive game scoring at least 24 points.

“I think tonight was a good win on the road shooting 40% from the field and under 30% from three. We still got to get better. We took a slow start and we got a lot of catching up to do.”