Kawhi Leonard can't cap Clippers comeback with last-second shot in loss to Spurs

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, defends against San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, left, defends against San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge during the second quarter on Tuesday at Staples Center. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The crowd noise pumping through Staples Center was entirely fake. The pressure felt by San Antonio during Tuesday’s fourth quarter, when the audio track seemed to only grow louder with every basket of a Clippers comeback, was very much real.

A 15-point San Antonio lead with five minutes remaining was down to single digits with 3:31 left. Then it was down to just two with 13 seconds left.

Two days removed from holding off an opponent’s furious second-half rally for a win, Clippers reserves stood by their seats, now savoring the sight of a sliced lead. The night would end, minutes later, with the quiet of a slow walk to the locker room after a 116-113 defeat.

Kawhi Leonard, having another big night against his old team, was unable to shake loose for a potential tying shot and passed to Luke Kennard at the top of the three-point arc, but his shot misfired and San Antonio’s Patty Mills made one of two free throws at the other end.

“He’s one of the greatest players in basketball; he made the right play,” Clippers guard Patrick Beverley said of Leonard’s pass to the open Kennard.

Given one more chance to tie, Leonard missed a leaning three-pointer from 26 feet in front of his team’s bench at the buzzer.

The night typified the kind of big margins and big comebacks that have become the hallmark of a head-scratching start to this season across the NBA. The ending spoiled Leonard’s 30-point, 10-assist performance that sparked his team’s comeback from a deficit of 24 points in the first half.

Nicolas Batum scored 21 points and Beverley had 20 points, with eight rebounds and eight assists, but Mills was a dagger in the Clippers’ back by making a career-high eight three-pointers en route to 27 points off the bench to lead the Spurs (3-4).

“He opened it up for those guys the way he was shooting the ball,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said.

It was the first time this season the Clippers (5-3) played without Paul George, who was ruled out a half-hour before tipoff after he “kind of tweaked his ankle a little bit” Sunday against Phoenix, Lue said.

Even with a hurt right ankle, George scored 39 points in that victory and pushed his season averages to 25.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.1 assists while making 49.2% of his three-pointers through seven games.

“He’s in a really good groove,” Lue said.

His team couldn’t say the same Tuesday.

After missing their first six shots, including five three-pointers, to trail by nine after four minutes, the Clippers closed their deficit to one on a rare Reggie Jackson dunk late in the first quarter. Yet that rally belied the impact of George’s absence. Already down one starter in Marcus Morris, Lue now didn’t have the luxury of staggering Leonard and George’s minutes to keep at least one star on the floor at all times. Lue played Leonard the entire first quarter, about two minutes longer than a normal rotation, then saw a starless lineup struggle to generate quality shots to begin the second quarter.

In the five minutes Leonard was on the bench catching his breath, the Spurs outscored the Clippers 15-3 to lead by 21. Despite facing double teams, Leonard scored 17 first-half points on an efficient 58% shooting, then made his first four shots of the second half, including a right-handed dunk in traffic to cut San Antonio’s lead to nine.

His hot start mirrored that of his team, which made nine of its first 10 shots after halftime and shot 76% in the quarter to outscore the Spurs by 18, an offensive explosion keyed by the very thing the Clippers could not do in the first half — make three-pointers. After making three of 17 shots from deep in the first half, they made seven in the third quarter alone.

But as soon as the Clippers took a one-point lead in the opening seconds of the fourth quarter, the Spurs answered by scoring 12 consecutive points. The Clippers played from behind the rest of the way, unable to overcome the hole they created.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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