Kawhi Leonard nets 6 points in 25 minutes of Clippers return

LOS ANGELES — Saying that the recovery from a torn ACL can be a “two-year process,” Kawhi Leonard returned to the court and started his first game of the season for the LA Clippers on Thursday.

Leonard played 24 minutes, scoring six points, grabbing five rebounds and dishing four assists to help the Clippers pull out an ugly 96-91 win over the Detroit Pistons at Crypto.com Arena.

Afterward, Leonard would not go into detail about what kept him out of 12 straight games after he began the season playing in two of the first three games off the bench for the Clippers.

“Just rehabbing, getting ready,” Leonard said of what he was going through since experiencing stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee on Oct. 25. “I’m not going to explain it because I’m not a doctor, and nobody in here is one. So just getting back, ready to get on the floor.”

Playing with his minutes monitored, Leonard started the first 5 minutes, 47 seconds of the first quarter. He logged another 5:46 in the second quarter and 5:56 in the third. In the fourth quarter, Leonard played seven minutes but had to check out with 2:43 remaining.

The Clippers are thrilled to have Leonard back but acknowledge it is like starting over again as everyone adapts to the franchise player back in the mix and ramping his minutes back up.

Leonard reiterated that his return from a torn right ACL suffered in Game 4 of the second round against Utah on June 14, 2021, will be a long process.

“Like I said before, at the start of the season, it’s going to be a long journey,” Leonard said. “ACL recovery isn’t just one year. Everybody thinks that, but it’s a two-year process, so I know that and I’m going to keep going and going through the process.”

Fortunately for the Clippers, they were up 88-81 when Leonard had to exit for the rest of the game after trailing the Pistons by as much as 12.

Leonard shot only 2-for-8 overall from the field and saw his streak of scoring in double figures snapped at 177 straight regular-season games, the third-longest active streak in the NBA behind LeBron James (1,106) and Luka Doncic (180), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The last time Leonard failed to score in double figures was Dec. 18, 2017, against the Clippers.

But Leonard still made a significant impact — he was a plus-26 on the floor.

“I just try to remind him that he’s Kawhi Leonard,” said point guard Reggie Jackson, who had 23 points. “That he’s special. He’s one of the best to ever play his game, and we got the utmost confidence in him no matter what the result was. We had utmost confidence in him no matter what his stat line said at the time. I don’t care if he made his shots. I don’t care if he turned it over. He is who he is for a reason, and we’re gonna ride with him in the fourth.”

Leonard was previously listed as out for the game, but his status was upgraded to questionable at Thursday morning’s shootaround and he was declared good to play before tipoff.

After playing in two of the first three games of the season, coming off the bench in both, Leonard experienced stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee at a morning shootaround before a game at Oklahoma City on Oct. 25.

Coach Tyronn Lue said he wanted to start Leonard because he did not like the process of bringing Leonard off the bench midway through the second quarter for his first stint of action like the Clippers did in his first two games. The design of that was to allow Leonard to finish the fourth quarter for a long stretch and not have him sit too long in between playing time.

“After I played those first two games, it was dead already,” Leonard said of his preference to start or come off the bench. “T-Lue wanted me to start the games and get us going in a flow. So, before I sat out [12 straight games] I knew I was gonna be starting.”

Now the Clippers wait to see how Leonard’s knee responds to his first game action in almost a month.

“Like I said, it’s a two-year process,” Leonard said of whether he is past what held him out for the previous 12 games. “Everybody thinks it’s a one-year process, but we don’t know. We’ll see what happens once we keep moving forward.”

(With Inputs from ESPN)

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