Pelicans hand Clippers second straight loss despite Kawhi Leonard's 40 points

Andrew Greif, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

NEW ORLEANS — When the Clippers signed Kawhi Leonard in a landmark free-agency acquisition four years ago, the significance was obvious for all to see. A franchise beleaguered by a woeful record in high-stress moments now had their stone-faced closer, a two-time NBA Finals most valuable player whose pulse seemed to rarely rise above resting.

The vision was Leonard reprising his Finals role in a Clippers uniform. On Saturday, they turned to Leonard with seven minutes remaining under far different circumstances than ever envisioned back then — needing their star to save them from falling that much closer to the NBA’s play-in tournament.

Playing on consecutive nights for the first time since April 9, 2021, Leonard walked onto the Smoothie King Center court with his team down by seven points with nine minutes to play, coach Tyronn Lue no longer able to allow Leonard to rest as his team’s deficit grew.

Leonard donned the cape. He made a 3-pointer, then another, and mixed in mid-range jumpers. In all he made five of his next nine shots, scoring 12 points during the fourth quarter.

Yet it was not enough to prevent a 122-114 Pelicans win that has continued to make this one of the Clippers’ worst matchups. They have lost nine of their last 11 games in the series, and five consecutive in New Orleans.

Now 41-38, the Clippers are on the precipice of the play-in tournament. New Orleans (40-38), which was led by Brandon Ingram’s 36 points and eight assists, is only a half-game behind the sixth-place Clippers, even in the loss column and owns the tiebreaker should it be necessary.

Leonard finished with 40 points in 41 minutes, eight rebounds and four assists, and Russell Westbrook added 24 points with eight assists, but in a replay from the previous night in Memphis, the Clippers built a double-digit lead only to give it all back through self-inflicted problems during a disastrous second quarter.

Against New Orleans the Clippers, starting Norman Powell in place of the injured Eric Gordon, pulled ahead by 12 during the first quarter behind Westbrook’s perfect 3-for-3shooting start, with three assists, a steal and no turnovers. The veteran saw holes appear in the defense before the Pelicans could close them.


Then, 31 seconds into the second quarter, backup wing Terance Mann fouled to stop a possession the Pelicans had kept alive with four offensive rebounds. The foul, innocuous by itself, started a parade to the free-throw line that erased the Pelicans’ dozen-point deficit with each slow walk to the stripe.

Aided by 12 Clippers fouls, the Pelicans took 15 free throws during the second quarter, making 12. Three fouls sidelined Powell the final 4:31 of the half, and starting center Ivica Zubac the final 3:37. Only Westbrook’s 11 second-quarter points kept the Clippers ahead by one at the half.

Saturday’s fouls replaced Friday’s turnovers as the source of another second-quarter struggle. The Clippers own the league’s third-worst net rating in second quarters all season, though they have improved to 12th since their roster was reformed after the All-Star break.

When Westbrook earned his fourth foul late in the third quarter, sidelining one of the night’s few consistent offensive options, how the Clippers would fill the void became the critical challenge. One candidate, Powell, who had battled congestion for days, had missed his first four 3-pointers while committing four turnovers.

Leonard helped in the third, but even Westbrook’s return to start the fourth quarter didn’t provide relief as the Clippers fell behind by seven after mustering just two points in the quarter’s first 2 1/2 minutes. Lue did not waste time getting Leonard, who had been resting, back into the game. The Clippers could not get back in all the way.

The question over their next three games is whether they can remain in contention for a first-round series.

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