LOS ANGELES — Finally able to shed his cumbersome protective face mask, Kawhi Leonard enjoyed a milestone Sunday that included the best quarter of his life and reaching 10,000 career points.
Leonard scored 35 and tied his career high of making seven 3-pointers, leading the Clippers past a red-hot Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls, 130-127, at Staples Center.
It was a third quarter to remember for Leonard. He scored 21 points and hit five 3-pointers — the most points and triples he has had in a quarter — while surpassing 10,000 points in his 10-year career in the third.
Afterward, Clippers coach Ty Lue presented Leonard with the game ball as the team applauded the former two-time Finals MVP.
“It’s a steppingstone,” Leonard said. “But to be honest, I really don’t care about it.
“”My eye is on the next day, next game. … Maybe when I retire, I’ll sit back and look at the accomplishments. But right now, it’s about being greedy and wanting more.”
Leonard was finally able to play a full game without the protective gear he had been using to protect his mouth after he needed eight stitches on Christmas night following an inadvertent elbow from teammate Serge Ibaka. With the mask on, Leonard shot 48-for-108 (44.4%) in his previous six games and said he had trouble breathing. Lue jokingly referred to the mask as an “extra defender” because of how much Leonard was fighting the mask.
Saying he didn’t have to worry or think about the mask, Leonard exploded in the third, burying 8 of 9 shots and all five of his 3-point attempts.
“I’m sure he was happy just being back to himself,” said Clippers guard Lou Williams, who had 21 points and a crucial steal late in the game. “And not having to deal with the mask and how it affects how he plays or how he breathes or anything. I’m sure it’s a great feeling when you get in a zone like that. He put us on his back.
“That was the perfect timing when we needed him. Usually a lot of times we know him for his defensive abilities, but on the offensive end tonight, that’s what carried us.”
Leonard barely had time to enjoy the best offensive quarter of his career. LaVine hit five 3-pointers in the quarter as well before finishing with 45 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
The Bulls’ guard drilled 10 3-pointers but airballed his final 3-point attempt under defensive pressure from the Clippers with 7.5 seconds remaining to allow the Clippers to escape.
Near the end of the game, Leonard took a spill in the paint and grabbed his left leg before getting up and finishing the game. In addition to getting the game ball, Leonard and the Clippers have the next couple of days off before playing New Orleans.
“Yeah, I’m good,” Leonard said. “We’ve got two days off [to recover], and I’ll be ready on Wednesday.”