LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers' long-awaited return of Kawhi Leonard finally came to an end on Thursday night, again. The two-time NBA Finals MVP suited up following a 12-game absence, helping the Clippers defeat the Detroit Pistons.
Leonard played 25 minutes, scoring six points, grabbing five rebounds, and dishing out four assists in the 96-91 victory.
“[It felt] good,” Kawhi Leonard said of his return. “It was good to be back to be able to be in live actions, getting some game reps, talking to teammates on the floor instead of the sideline. I felt good. I was happy to be back.”
Leonard last played on Oct. 23 against the Phoenix Suns. He was ruled out of the team's road matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder two days later with knee stiffness, and was then out indefinitely as the team worked to improve his knee for the rigors of the NBA season.
Leonard's stiffness was something he initially thought he could play through, but after approaching the medical staff following shootaround, the action was taken to pull Leonard.
“It was a group effort. Like I said before at the start of the season: it's gonna be a long journey. ACL recovery isn’t just one year. Everybody thinks that, but it's a two-year process, so, I know that and I'm gonna keep going and going through the process.”
Leonard's first five-on-five action came last Friday prior to Clippers practice. He played multiple times over the last few days, and the medical staff's evaluations were going to dictate if and when he would be able to return.
“Just following medical's lead and making sure we're doing right by Kawhi and how he's feeling,” head coach Tyronn Lue said of Kawhi Leonard's return.
After coming off the bench to start the season, Leonard started Thursday night's game to try to get his team going early. That was always going to be the plan after the failed attempts the first two games of the season.
“That was too nasty,” Lue said of bringing Leonard off the bench. “I didn’t like it. You got the best player… I just thought the best thing for us and to establish a rhythm, getting our rhythm down to start him would be best.”
“After I played those first two games, it was dead already,” Kawhi Leonard added. “T-Lue wanted me to start the games and get us going in a flow. So, you know, before I sat out I knew I was gonna be starting.”
Leonard only played 25 minutes and scored just six points, but finished the game with a game-high plus/minus of plus-26. It was evident that the team played better with him out there contributing on both ends.
“Just be great in my minutes. I gotta go out there and do what I can to win a basketball game in the minutes that I'm receiving. And that's what I did tonight. Just whenever I was on the court, tried to play winning basketball on both ends and I was fortunate enough to have a plus-26 in the game.”
There's no guarantee Kawhi Leonard will play every game moving forward. Right now, he feels good, and that's going to be a significant portion of the determining factor in his availability.
“It’s going to be game-by-game, day-by-day,” Lue explained. “Just making sure he feels good. And we’re going to ride our medical staff on this one and just kind of see how it plays out. But he feels good, and being able to get him on the floor the way we did was good. Continue to keep building off of that, try to get our rotations going and try to get our rotations right, and then just kind of try to build from there.”
The Los Angeles Clippers will take on Kawhi Leonard's former team, the San Antonio Spurs, on Saturday evening. Leonard's status will likely be determined once the medical staff sees how his body responds to Thursday's game.