Kawhi Leonard shelved the protective mask he’s been wearing and fueled a 3rd quarter rally to give the LA Clippers a 130-127 win over the Chicago Bulls Sunday afternoon at Staples Center.
The game turned out to be a scoring duel between Leonard, who paced the Clippers with 35 points, and the Bulls’ Zach LaVine, who led all scorers with 45 points but missed the tying basket in the final minute.
Once again, Tyronn Lue maintained his regular starting five for the season with the Clippers. The teams traded baskets in the opening minutes, with the Bulls racing out to a 12-5 lead at the first timeout. Chicago got up by 12, before LA started chipping away, and narrowed the deficit to three points.
Serge Ibaka was called for a flagrant foul on Thaddeus Young with 2:30 to play in the opening quarter, the Clippers center grabbing Young on the face and neck. The contact was not malicious, however, and the player received a Flagrant 1 assessment on the play to stay in the game. That came during another stretch where the Bulls extended the lead again, ending the quarter with a 31-22 lead on the Clippers.
Ivica Zubac struggled to begin the game, particularly on the offensive end, but the Clippers center started finding some traction in the 2nd quarter, as he made a block on Coby White’s layup attempt, before running the lane for an emphatic dunk off a Patrick Beverley feed seconds later. That helped push the Clippers on a 10-0 run to pull within three points.
But the Bulls pushed the tempo going into halftime and maintained their lead, the teams hitting the locker room with Chicago leading 59-52. That was the story of the 1st half, Chicago opting to run and gun, the Clippers struggling to keep up and hit a rhythm of their own. Paul George paced LA’s scorers with 14 points, Leonard right behind with 12 at the half.
The teams traded 3-pointers midway through the 3rd quarter, and a put-back by Ibaka at 7:06 brought the Clippers to within two points. A couple possessions later, Beverley hit a floater to tie the game at 77-77. Leonard hit a go-ahead 3-pointer a minute later to give the Clippers their first lead since the opening minutes.
After the 3rd quarter ended with the teams tied 94-94, it set the scene for a showdown in the final 12 minutes. Leonard scored 21 points in the 3rd quarter, setting a career-best in terms of scoring in a single quarter, and hit a career-best five 3-pointers in that quarter, while also reaching 10,000 career points.
Leonard hit the bench to get a much-needed rest in the 4th, and a bench-heavy group picked right up to take the lead and extend it down the stretch. But the Bulls wouldn’t go away, and the game remained close, Bulls forward Denzel Valentine hitting a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game with just over seven minutes to play.
After Garrett Temple gave the Bulls a 119-118 lead, Nicolas Batum hit a contested 3-pointer and buried the free throw for a four-point play to make it 122-119 for LA with a couple minutes left in the game.
Lou Williams grabbed a timely steal on the next possession and finished the play himself on the fast break to extend the lead as the seconds ticked away.
Leonard hit a layup in the final minute of the game and hit the ground, briefly clutching his leg before getting up and continuing on defense. LaVine hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to make it a one-point lead for the Clippers. George was fouled on the next possession and hit both free throws to make it a three-point game, and LaVine hit his worst shot of the night, airballing the subsequent 3-point attempt.
Coming off a tough loss Friday, the Clippers were sluggish in the 1st half, but Leonard’s best-ever quarter, plus good contributions off the bench in this game and good play as usual this season from George, combined to help LA rally and post the win. They’ve yet to lose consecutive games so far in this young season.
The Clippers are next scheduled to be in action Wednesday at Staples Center against the New Orleans Pelicans. Two whole days off! Hope the Clippers rest up ahead of the next one.