Top Stories

Kawhi Leonard returns, starts for Clippers after missing 12 games

After missing 12 straight games due to injury, Kawhi Leonard returned to the starting lineup in the Clippers' 96-91 win.

Kawhi Leonard made a successful return to the Clippers’ lineup on Thursday, playing 25 minutes in a 96-91 victory.

LOS ANGELES — After appearing in his first NBA game since rehabbing his right knee for the previous 3 1/2 weeks, LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard predicted “it will be a long journey” before he fully heals from a right ACL injury that sidelined him for the entire 2021-22 season.

“It’s a two-year process. Everybody thinks it’s a one-year process,” Leonard said following the Clippers’ 96-91 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Thursday at Arena. “We don’t know. We’ll see what happens once we keep moving forward.”

He had been listed as questionable earlier in the day.

How important is Kawhi Leonard's return to the Clippers' starting lineup?

Leonard finished with six points (2-for-8 shooting, 0-for-3 on 3-pointers) along with five rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes as a starter. Despite Leonard’s inefficient shooting numbers, Clippers coach Tyronn Lue praised Leonard for his movement, his defense and a plus-26 rating that indicated team success while he was on the floor.

“He looked pretty good as far as his movement,” Lue said. “His impact defensively is huge for us. With him on the floor we’re a different team. It gives us a sense of calmness when he has the ball in his hand.”

Leonard started after coming off the bench in two of the Clippers’ first three games in an attempt to preserve his workload and ensure crunch-time minutes. The 11-year veteran averaged 12.5 points (44.4 FG%) and 6.5 rebounds in 21 minutes per game, and then missed 12 consecutive games because of stiffness in his right knee.

But Lue has since opted against that approach.

“That was too nasty,” Lue said. “I didn’t like it. You have the best player [on the bench].”

Leonard first played in 5-on-5 drills on November 11. Since then, Lue said Leonard completed more 5-on-5 sessions “a couple of times.” Leonard also traveled with the Clippers on their recent two-game trip in Houston and Dallas. After the Clippers upgraded Leonard following Thursday’s morning shootaround, Lue started him against Detroit in hopes of improving Leonard’s rhythm and team chemistry.

The Clippers (9-7) anticipate Leonard will play against the San Antonio Spurs (6-10) on Saturday (10:30 ET, NBA League Pass). But after that?

“I really don’t know,” Lue said. “It’s going to be game-by-game and day-by-day with making sure he feels good. We’re going to ride our medical staff on this one, and see how it plays out. Just seeing how he feels is the most important thing. It’s not like he has to check any boxes.”

Leonard has found stability through all the uncertainty.

“This is the easy part now because I’m able to get in the game and play,” Leonard said. “But last season, it was a long season with doing what I can to strengthen the knee and strengthen my whole body. Knowing I’m not going to be able to touch the floor was pretty draining. But I pushed hard to get to this point now. It’s still going to be a long journey, but I just have to keep fighting.”

* * *

Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Warner Bros. Discovery.