Kawhi Leonard bloodied by elbow to face, exits early in Clippers' win over Nuggets

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Andrew Greif
·4 min read
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Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, center, is accompanied off the court during the second half.
Trainers tend to Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard as he walks off the court after taking an elbow to the face in the fourth quarter of Friday's win over the Denver Nuggets. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard received eight stitches Friday after suffering a lacerated mouth while attempting to grab a rebound during the team’s 121-108 victory in Denver.

A timetable for his return is not yet known. The Clippers next play Sunday at Staples Center against Dallas, with games on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well.

Leonard fell to the court inside Denver’s Ball Arena after the left side of his face was hit by the right elbow of teammate Serge Ibaka halfway through the fourth quarter. Television replays showed blood coming from Leonard’s mouth as the Clippers’ medical staff huddled around him.

Leonard walked off the court under his own power with 6:07 remaining in the game and did not return.

“He’s going to be fine,” coach Tyronn Lue said after the victory, which moved the Clippers to 2-0.

Leonard finished with 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

"I was thinking of the worst, I didn't know if he was concussed, or how hard of a hit or what actually happened because I didn't see it, I saw him laying on the ground," teammate Paul George said. "That was first and foremost, making sure he was OK."

The game was the first meeting between the teams since Denver ended the Clippers’ season in September by clawing back from a 3-1 second-round playoff series deficit.

“Can’t worry about what happened last year,” Lue said. “Just got to continue to move forward.”

When asked to reflect on last season’s bitter end, the Clippers consistently have called this a new team focused on a new season. Yet it cannot be overstated how hitting rock bottom during September’s collapse shaped the very Clippers roster that arrived for its mile-high matchup Friday.

A loss in the second round might have spurred changes on its own, but the embarrassment suffered by the Clippers against the Nuggets virtually guaranteed that consequences would be paid for throughout the organization.

By dismissing Doc Rivers and promoting his former assistant Lue, the Clippers hired a coach whose fingerprints were clearly evident Friday. Lue has promised better ball movement since his first official day on the job; Los Angeles assisted on 20 of its first 23 baskets en route to a 21-point third-quarter lead.

Lue also has displayed a willingness to let the Clippers attack from three-point range, and the team responded by making 19 of 38 three-pointers.

One first-half three-pointer was made by Ibaka, the kind of center with deep-shooting range the team targeted after seeing how little Denver was bothered by rotations that relied heavily on center Montrezl Harrell, a specialist at getting to the rim. Luke Kennard, a bouncy reserve guard the team believed was an upgrade from Landry Shamet, made two of his first three from deep. Just as in September, there was little the Clippers could do to disrupt the rhythm of Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic, who coaxed early foul trouble out of Ibaka and backup Ivica Zubac and had attempted 10 free throws by midway through the third quarter, which helped cut the Clippers’ lead to 16 points.

But unlike in Game 7 of the second round, there was also little the Nuggets could do to throw off Leonard and Paul George. Coming off a 33-point game in Tuesday’s season-opening victory against the Lakers, George scored a team-high 23 points with nine assists and five rebounds and Leonard added 21 points with seven assists and five rebounds.

More than just his statistics, Leonard continued to display the speed and physicality he lacked for the first several months of last season while recovering from offseason surgery.

“I think it was hard on him,” Lue said. “I just talked to him [this offseason] about playing with pace. His pace has been phenomenal in the first game and in practice, being able to use his frame and his strength to get downhill, create mismatches.”

The difference was easily noticeable. So was the way in which these teams will be inexorably connected throughout this season.

Though Denver coach Michael Malone said before tipoff that his team was more concerned about its struggles during a season-opening loss to Sacramento than “the story” of the Clippers rematch, the memories of September were nonetheless fresh and the motivation for both sides palpable — and that was even with former Clipper JaMychal Green, who joined Denver as a free agent despite the Clippers’ attempt to re-sign him, sidelined because of a calf injury.

“The Clippers were talking a lot when they were winning, when they were up,” Malone said in a video published by the Nuggets before tipoff. “They weren’t talking as much in Game 5, 6 and 7.”

Instead, the Clippers’ bench was yelling Friday, as the lead grew to 24 late in the third quarter after George’s fifth three-pointer.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.