Kawhi Leonard returns and lifts Clippers to win over Heat – Press Enterprise

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LOS ANGELES – Kawhi Leonard was back on the court Monday, doing what he normally does. He drove the lane, rebounded the ball, and created opportunities for his teammates. He also scored 24 points.

From the start, it was evident that there wasn’t any minute restriction or slow lead-in for Leonard after missing four games in 11 days. There wasn’t anything holding him back once he got moving.

Not only did he lead the team in scoring, Leonard grabbed six rebounds, had five steals, four assists and one blocked shot in 34 minutes before taking a seat with 5:43 left to play and the Clippers comfortably on their way to a 121-104 victory.

“Getting Kawhi back is going to be huge for us tonight,” Coach Tyronn Lue said, adding that it was important to get him acclimated quickly.

It took a full quarter, but Leonard picked up where he had left off before injuring his right hip in a collision during a Dec. 20 game against the Dallas Mavericks. After failing to score in his first seven minutes, the two-time Finals MVP scored his next five shots, including a putback off James Harden’s blocked layup.

Harden had picked up a loose ball and raced, along with Leonard, down court. After Harden’s attempt was blocked, Leonard was there for the rebound and basket, got fouled on the shot and fell on his right hip. He slowly got up but showed no discomfort and continued to play.

Leonard surpassed 13,000 career points with a dunk in the third quarter, an exclamation point to his return.

It was the kind of aggressiveness the Clippers need from the team’s leading scorer if they want to stay ahead of a pack of three teams closely bunched in the Western Conference. The Clippers (20-12) currently are fourth.

“We have got to try to get him back to doing that,” Lue said of Leonard, who was averaging 24.4 points before missing his first games of the season.

Leonard had plenty of help in pacing the Clippers to their fourth consecutive victory and 12th in their past 14 games.

Paul George finished with 23 points, Harden had 15 points and 10 assists, while Norman Powell added 22 points on 9 of 11 shooting from the field, including 4 of 5 from 3-point range.

Ivica Zubac pulled down 12 rebounds to go with his six points.

The Clippers stretched a 59-58 halftime lead to 10 points on a pair of free throws by Harden with less than eight minutes remaining in the third quarter. They maintained their grip on the lead, pushing it to 13 in the third quarter before settling for the xx-point victory.

The Heat led by as many as 14 in the first half but couldn’t overcome the healthy Clippers team.

Miami (19-14) has had a slew of injuries recently. Jimmy Butler returned Saturday after a four-game absence because of a calf issue, scoring eight points in 23 minutes against the Utah Jazz before injuring his ankle and was unable to return. Although x-rays were negative, Butler couldn’t play Monday, missing his ninth game of the season.

Also, in that game against the Jazz, Haywood Highsmith hit his head in a collision while diving for a loose ball and entered concussion protocol. He returned to Miami and will likely miss the rest of the Heat’s West Coast trip that ends in Phoenix.

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