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Balanced Clippers hold off Lakers in Kawhi Leonard’s return

Leonard has 14 points in his first game in 16 months, and the Clippers begin their season of lofty expectations with their eighth consecutive victory over their cold-shooting rivals, 103-97

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard controls the ball as the Lakers’ Juan Toscano-Anderson defends during the first half on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena. Leonard had 14 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes in his first game in 16 months. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-ɫ̳/SCNG)
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard controls the ball as the Lakers’ Juan Toscano-Anderson defends during the first half on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena. Leonard had 14 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes in his first game in 16 months. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-ɫ̳/SCNG)

LOS ANGELES — Maybe the pep in his step came from checking into the game with a 12-point lead.

Or maybe Kawhi Leonard was just excited to be playing again.

After 493 days since he last played in a game that counted, Leonard skipped down the court, not once, but twice after back-to-back baskets over Juan Toscano-Anderson. It was an encouraging first scene for a star who has too often been on the shelf with injury.

Getting their 31-year-old star back might have been the biggest victory for the Clippers on Thursday night – but a season-opening win against their crosstown rival was satisfying, too.

The Clippers (1-0) extended their winning streak over the Lakers (0-2) to eight consecutive games, every game since Ty Lue became their head coach, with a 103-97 victory that saw them pull ahead for good after a tussle. The Lakers made things interesting with defensive intensity and breakneck transition attack, but the Clippers’ superior shooting and scoring balance won the day.

Leonard didn’t even check into the game until midway through the second quarter under the Clippers’ plan to manage his workload, but he finished with 14 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. Lue said he hoped to see the two-time Finals MVP play the high-leverage minutes at the game’s end, and sure enough, Leonard hit one of the game’s final key baskets on a 20-foot jumper with 52 seconds left. It was his first game since a June 2021 playoff win against Utah, when he scored 31 points.

Was he impatient waiting all that time on the bench into the second quarter?

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

He had plenty of help, though: No Clipper scored more than 15 points, but Paul George (15), John Wall (15), Marcus Morris Sr. (14), Ivica Zubac (14) and Luke Kennard (11) all finished in double figures. Wall turned out to be the Clippers’ first substitute before Leonard after an even longer wait: He was 7 for 15 with three assists in his first game since April 23, 2021.

The scoring balance helped compensate for a lopsided turnover margin (21-9) that helped the Lakers score 21 points off of giveaways and stay in the game.

“Our bench has always been good for us,” Lue said. “It wasn’t really a great game. It was a nasty game for real, but just to stick with it and do what we did, I thought was huge.”

Their Lakers counterparts didn’t have as much support. Anthony Davis (25 points) and LeBron James (20 points) were among the top scorers, but Lonnie Walker IV topped them both with 26 points. But no other Laker finished in double figures.

As a team, the Clippers shot 46.3% compared to their competitors with a dismal 35.1%. The Lakers actually regressed from their season opener from long range, going just 9 for 45 from behind the 3-point arc.

That deficiency is a bit of a raw wound after James pointed out Tuesday that the roster lacks quality shooters. But James (who was only 7 for 17 from the field himself) changed his tune slightly when asked if he thought the Lakers should go out and get some.

“I’m definitely not going to sit here and harp on what we can’t do every single game,” he said. “That’s not a leader. What I know we can do? We can defend our ass off. We did that tonight, which gave us an opportunity to win and we just couldn’t make it happen. But, I’m OK with that.”

The Lakers had a slight injury scare in the third quarter, when Davis fell to the court and landed on his back, which has been tight throughout the preseason. Davis paced the floor tenderly, checked out briefly to stretch and try to warm his back in the tunnel, then checked back in and played through obvious discomfort.

The team, however, had a tougher time grinding through the third quarter: The Clippers went on a 17-0 run in a four-minute span – punctuated by a runaway dunk by George.

The Lakers’ biggest issue with a star missing in action wasn’t Davis: Russell Westbrook missed all 11 of his field-goal attempts, including four looks at the rim. Defensively, he scrapped his way to five steals, including a pair within 20 seconds of each other on careless entry passes in the fourth quarter, but offensively, he couldn’t find the bottom of the basket except at the free-throw line.

Ham finally pulled his embattled star with less than a minute left in the game after he clanked a 3-point attempt, his sixth, as the Lakers struggled to come back. A few of the Lakers’ guards also looked overmatched: Former Clipper Pat Beverley was 1 for 7 from the field, while Kendrick Nunn was 0 for 7.

George, who played with Westbrook in Oklahoma City, said he sees something missing in the Westbrook-Lakers partnership, pointing out that the roster isn’t a good fit for the 33-year-old’s talents. There are times when George thinks pressure and ill fit might be sapping Westbrook’s spirit.

“I just want him to keep having that joy,” he said. “Keep having that excitement, that fun. That’s what makes him special, the fact he can do that on a nightly basis. I hate to see that it doesn’t look like that’s there for him.”

Leonard looked closer to the dominant player he was two seasons ago. He said he plans to keep coming off the bench until he’s ready to play at least 35 minutes. Otherwise, he has to sit too long on the bench. He’ll continue to trust Lue’s judgment on when to come in the game.

“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 season opener for the Clippers and the home opener for the Lakers was well-stocked with notable guests, including NBA commissioner Adam Silver watching from midway up the lower bowl at midcourt. Lamar Odom, a star for both franchises in his heyday, spent much of the second half mingling with fans at the floor level, including Lakers owner Jeanie Buss.

But who owns L.A.? After eight meetings, it’s still the Clippers.

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