In Kawhi Leonard's return from a sprained ankle, the LA Clippers went to the two-time Finals MVP with the game on the line -- and he obliged, drilling a step-back midrange jumper with 1.4 seconds remaining to beat the Charlotte Hornets on Monday night.
After missing the previous six games due to a sprained right ankle, Leonard hit 7 of 15 shots and finished with 16 points, six rebounds and the game-winning 18-foot jumper in 28 minutes. This was just his sixth game of the season after missing all of 2021-22 due to a torn right ACL.
"It felt good to be back," Leonard told reporters in Charlotte after the game. "I love this game of basketball. I don't think nobody loves playing more than me. Maybe [people love] watching [more]. But I love this game. And it gives me joy when I am able to play.
"That ending is great that I was able to make that shot. We're [leading by] nine, eight points pretty much the whole game. I would rather close it out than have to [grind it] out like that."
The Clippers were thrilled to have Leonard, George and Luke Kennard back. George, who missed the previous seven games with a right hamstring strain, shot 8-of-15 and finished with a team-high 19 points and seven assists in 28 minutes. Kennard, who missed nine straight games with a strained right calf, had nine points.
The Clippers led by seven with 6:32 remaining, but Charlotte fought back and took a 117-115 lead with 1:34 to go. But George tapped an offensive rebound to Leonard underneath the basket for a game-tying layup.
And after getting a stop on the other end, George corralled the rebound and had an opportunity to take it to the rim. But he brought it back out and moved the ball to the right corner to set Leonard up for the final shot. He passed to John Wall, who fed Leonard on the right wing. Leonard had the smaller Terry Rozier on him initially before the Hornets switched the bigger Jalen McDaniels onto Leonard.
Leonard, though, was able to get to his preferred midrange area and hit a step-back jumper for the win.
"Any time you see Kawhi going to the spot, that's where he is comfortable," George said. "And that's where we are comfortable. So, I swung the ball. I wanted to get it to him right there and he took it home with his shot."
Even though it's only early December, the Clippers are feeling the urgency of getting going with their two stars on the court. Entering Monday's game, Leonard and George had shared the court in only four games this season for a total of 65 minutes.
The Clippers improved to 4-1 in games when they both play.
"It was huge," Clippers coach Ty Lue said of Leonard's game-winning shot. "A great momentum builder for him going forward and just happy to see those guys back on the floor. Thought PG did a great job, especially in that first half of scoring the basketball, distributing the ball and getting guys easy shots. Those guys on the floor, it's going to cause teams to double-team, teams to do some things they're not used to doing and we're going to get open shots ... so just continue to keep building off this."