LOS ANGELES – His tone sounded stoic and his body language appeared apathetic. When Clippers star Kawhi Leonard spoke, though, he expressed his annoyance clearly.
Leonard shared his displeasure for receiving criticism on his load-management program and for the NBA fining the Clippers $50,000 for coach Doc Rivers making comments “that were inconsistent with his health status.”
“It’s just disappointing. It feels like they want players to play even if they’re not ready,” Leonard said of the NBA. “I don’t read into it. I have to do what will make me healthy and help the team be successful. That’s me being able to play basketball games for us.”
Leonard played in the Clippers’ 107-101 win over Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday at Staples Center. He scored 27 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter on 6-of-10 shooting after laboring through the first three periods on a combined 3-of-13 clip. Leonard sat on Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks, however, marking the second time in a week he sat the first game of a nationally televised back-to-back as part of the Clippers’ load management program.
The NBA reiterated in a statement on Thursday that “the team’s decision to sit Leonard for management of an injury was consistent with league rules.” The NBA only fined the Clippers because Rivers said before Wednesday’s game against Milwaukee that Leonard “feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing.” The NBA believed Rivers’ comment undercut the league’s support of the Clippers for resting Leonard for an actual injury.
Kawhi Leonard scored 27 points to lead the Clippers over the Blazers. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)
When an NBA team submits its injury report a day before a game, the NBA has independent doctors verify the players’ medical records before approving the absence, according to two people familiar with the situation. The two people spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The NBA has adopted this practice in the past two years in hopes to improve team transparency and prevent teams from sitting their players arbitrarily. It was not known until Thursday, however, about the exact nature of Leonard’s ailments. In its statement, the NBA revealed that Leonard has dealt with an “ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games.”
RETURN: Kawhi leads Clippers past Blazers
$50K: Clipper fined for Rivers' comments on resting Kawhi
Rivers maintained he’s “scared to answer” on what he thought of the NBA sharing information about Leonard’s injury publicly. Leonard considered the development to be “shocking.”
“It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not a guy that reads the media, anyway,” Leonard said. “We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy. That’s the most important thing moving forward.”
Leonard has followed a load management program ever since he played in only nine games two years ago because of an injured right quad during his final season with the San Antonio Spurs. So when the Spurs traded Leonard to the Toronto Raptors, Leonard followed a load management program last year that limited him to 60 regular-season games in 34 minutes per game. Leonard believed that approach helped him win his second NBA championships and second Finals MVP while averaging 39.1 minutes per game during the playoffs.
As for this season, Leonard has averaged 30.9 minutes through seven games and has missed contests against Utah and Milwaukee. He also has worked out and received treatment after each game, a routine that usually lasts between an hour and 90 minutes. It remains unclear if Leonard will sit in future back-to-backs, beginning with a road slate next week in Houston (Wednesday) and New Orleans (Thursday). Yet, Leonard already noticed how his routine has improved his health.
“It just helps from me pushing on something that is not ready,” Leonard said. “We’re going to keep managing it moving forward. I’m not a doctor. That’s what the doctors and my training staff is for and letting me know and then telling them how I feel. We have to keep moving forward.”
Meanwhile, the Clippers are trying to move forward by adjusting to Leonard’s schedule. The Clippers have yet to win without Leonard in the lineup. They have become encouraged, though, with how Leonard and his teammates have helped them absorb Paul George’s absence while recovering from off-season surgery on his left shoulder. He plans to complete a full-contact practice on Saturday and could return as early as Wednesday against Houston.
Until then, the Clippers have tried to accomplish two things.
One, the Clippers have handled Leonard with care so that they can lean on him in games he plays. He entered Thursday’s game averaging a league-leading 12.6 points on 55.3 percent shooting in 9.5 minutes per game in the fourth quarter. Against Portland, Leonard made two jumpers and four free throws in the final 2:40.
“What I love about him and several of our guys is he plays the game to win,” Rivers said of Leonard. “He has the ability to get by what happened during the game. Because of his closing time, he has the ability to focus.”
Two, the Clippers have ensured team balance. Clippers guard Lou Williams added 26 points off the bench, including making a jumper and a 3-pointer in the final minute. The Clippers (6-3) held Portland (3-5) to a combined 37.5 percent clip, while holding Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum scoreless on a combined 0-of-8 clip in the fourth quarter after they both scored 22 points through three periods The Clippers entered Thursday's game boasting the NBA's most productive bench (50.8 points per game).
“I’m sure throughout the course of the year, they’re not going to be the only guys that will be out of the rotation,” Williams said of Leonard and George. “When somebody goes out, you have to adjust and you have to be next man up. You continue to push. But one thing we can control is hard we compete.”
Leonard showed those qualities against Portland partly because he sat the previous night against Milwaukee. That approach might hurt Leonard’s chances to win a regular-season MVP award. He has his eyes set, though, on a different set of hardware.
Said Leonard: “It’s never one of my goals. The goal is to try to win a championship.”
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