Kawhi loses the mask and has hot night for Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CA – The third quarter individual battle between the Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine was an indicator on how their two teams played one another. Like the matinee game itself that was played Sunday at STAPLES Center, Leonard and LaVine put on a show. And like the Clippers in their 130-127 win, Leonard outdueled LaVine.

“I’m sure [Kawhi] was happy just being back to himself and not having to deal with the mask and how it affects how he plays, how he breathes or anything,” Clippers guard Lou Williams said. “I’m sure it’s a great feeling when you get in a zone like that, [Kawhi] put us on his back. Chicago is a young scrappy team. [Chicago] was in control of the game for almost three quarters and Kawhi decided he was going to be more aggressive on the offensive end and was able to carry us into a tie ballgame going into that fourth quarter. I think that was the perfect time when we needed him. A lot of times we know him for his defensive abilities, but on the offensive end tonight that’s what carried.”

Leonard scored 21 of his 35 points in that third quarter. LaVine chipped in 15 of his game-high 45 points in the period. The Clippers got the best of the Bulls, scoring 42 points and flipping a halftime deficit into a slight lead going into the fourth quarter. The game would remain tight, but Leonard and the Clippers had already tilted the contest in their favor.

Kawhi Leonard scored 21 of his 35 points in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers' 130-127 win against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2020. Photo credit: Los Angeles Clippers
Kawhi Leonard scored 21 of his 35 points in the third quarter of the Los Angeles Clippers’ 130-127 win against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2020. Photo credit: Los Angeles Clippers

“You notice both of them are hot,” Clippers small forward Paul George said. “You know, on one end we were frustrated that we keep letting [LaVine] get open looks, or looks that [LaVine] likes, but then on our end, we were happy and excited that Kawhi had it going and we wanted to keep finding him. You know, it was obviously bitter-sweet to see one of our guys get hot but one of their guys is hot as well. It’s basketball, this league is an amazing league, so many talented players. You are going to see that from time-to-time.”

Before his third quarter scoring explosion, Leonard had a steady first half with 12 points. Nothing to home to mamma about. The Bulls had outshot the Clippers from the field, hitting their shots at a 56 percent clip. The Clippers, on the other hand, made good on just 42 percent of their field goal attempts.

That changed in the third quarter when Leonard made eight of his nine shots from the field. Leonard’s scoring efficiency helped the Clippers catch fire offensively. Los Angeles made 17 of 25 field-goal attempts in the period, good enough for a 68 percent

“I think the team did a good job at recognizing that [Kawhi Leonard] had it going,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “We kept running our double aways and Kawhi was coming off the shot and we ran our single pins and he came off and shot, and then he went under a few times and made a couple shots. We needed every bit of it today.”

Besides having that stellar third quarter, Leonard also reached a career milestone. It was in the third quarter that Leonard went over 10,000 points in his career. But for Leonard, it’s no big deal. His main objective is to win ballgames, he said.

“It’s a stepping stone, but to be honest I really don’t care about it,” Leonard said. “I’m here in the league to play basketball, to play hard, to try to win games. The rest just comes with it pretty much. That’s my mindset on it.”

The free flow that helped Leonard shoot well for the game could be attributed to the Clippers forward playing without the facial mask he started wearing after being injured in the team’s Christmas Day win against the Denver Nuggets. Leonard was accidentally injured by Serge Ibaka, his own teammate.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams
Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams goes to the rack for two points against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2020. Photo credit: Los Angeles Clippers

“Just not worrying about taking it on and off during time outs, things like that,” said Leonard. “That’s it really. Those are the different adjustments. Having to put on the headgear before you check in and [taking it off] when you come into a timeout.”

Leonard didn’t beat the Bulls by himself. He had plenty of help. George chipped in 28 points and 9 assists. Williams dropped in 21 points in the win. Besides Leonard going off on his third-quarter scoring spree, the Clippers benefitted from another element in their victory: smallball. It was when Lue went with a smaller lineup, things started popping for the Clippers.

“It was good for us,” Lue said. “Once Marcus [Morris Sr.] gets in better shape, I think it’ll be really good for us, to switch one through five. Today, the way the [Chicago Bulls] shot the basketball and they way they moved the ball, it was a tough day for us. But we tried everything, we trapped them, we zoned them, we switched, we went under, we did everything they just had one of those days where they shot the ball really well. That small ball lineup will be something we use going down the stretch.”

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