One night after he was held out of a loss to the Milwaukee Bucks due to load management of a knee issue, Leonard overcame a slow start and helped the LA Clippers erase an eight-point, fourth-quarter deficit, totaling 27 points and 13 rebounds in a 107-101 victory over the Portland Trail Blazerson Thursday night at Staples Center.
After the win, Leonard found himself answering questions about load management and his knee. The NBA had fined the Clippers $50,000 before the game for statements made by the team and coach Doc Rivers that "were inconsistent" with Leonard's health. In that statement, the NBA also detailed Leonard's injury by explaining that the team was compliant in load management by "reasonably" determining that "Leonard is suffering from 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."
"I mean it was shocking, but it doesn't matter to me," Leonard said when asked what he thought about the NBA revealing details about his injury. "I'm not a guy that reads the media anyway. We're going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that's the most important thing, me being healthy moving forward."
After the NBA said the Clippers were compliant with league rules in holding Leonard out of Wednesday's nationally televised game against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, Rivers said before that game that Leonard "feels great," that there was no reason to be concerned and that the team must make sure Leonard stays feeling great.
This is the second time the Clippers have been fined this year for comments involving Leonard. In May, Rivers said on ESPN that Leonard "is the most like Jordan that we've seen" when likening the All-Star physically to former NBA great Michael Jordan. At the time, Leonard was with the Toronto Raptors before becoming a free agent, and the NBA fined the Clippers $50,000 for tampering.
"For me, I'm on his side, you know what I mean?" Leonard said when asked about the league fining the Clippers twice over Rivers' remarks about him. "I'm a Clipper, he's my coach. That's just disappointing. It feels like they want players to play if they're not ready.
"It is what it is. Like I said, I don't read into it. I got to do what makes me healthy and is going to help the team be successful and that's me being able to play basketball games for us."
Twice this season, Leonard has sat out the first game of a back-to-back set, the previous time coming in a Clippers loss at Utah in what was also a nationally televised game on Oct. 30. The decision, though, clearly looked as if it paid off Thursday night.
Even though Leonard missed 10 of 13 shots and had only nine points after the first three quarters, he continued to raise his game in the fourth quarter. Leonard leads the league in fourth-quarter scoring so far this season, averaging 13.5 points in the quarter.
Not only did he score 15 or more fourth-quarter points for the third straight game, he also outdueled Portland's formidable backcourt tandem of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in this nationally televised game. The Clippers' defense held the duo scoreless in the fourth quarter on a combined 0-for-8 shooting.
Meanwhile, Leonard made 6 of 10 shots and all six of his free throw attempts, and grabbed six of his rebounds in the quarter.
"Well, he looked well-rested," Portland head coach Terry Stotts said of Leonard, who also scored 18 points in the fourth quarter of a win over Utah on Nov. 3. "He was able to take it to another gear in the fourth quarter."
Before training camp, Leonard, 28, said he felt much better than he did at the same time a year earlier, and that his load management would be different than how Toronto handled it when he played in a total of 60 games during the regular season. Leonard then played in 24 postseason games, averaging 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds to lead Toronto to its first championship and earning Finals MVP honors.
Rivers echoed how good Leonard has felt before Wednesday's game but wouldn't go into any further detail on Thursday after learning of the league's fine. Rivers has had to straddle the line between Leonard's desire for privacy regarding his health and the league's stance on transparency about injuries and load management. Asked if there is a middle ground between those two competing mandates, the veteran coach said, "I'm scared to answer. That's my answer. I just won't answer."
Leonard said he would continue to follow the lead of team doctors and his training staff when it comes to load management and sitting out a game during back-to-backs.
"It just helps from just me pushing on something that's not ready," Leonard said of the long-term benefits of the strategy. "Like I said, we are going to keep managing it moving forward. I'm not a doctor and that's for what the doctors and my training staff is for, letting me know and just telling how I feel and just got to keep moving it forward."
Kawhi carries Clippers with big 4th quarter
Kawhi Leonard scores 18 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth quarter as the Clippers come from behind to beat the Trail Blazers 107-101.