LOS ANGELES -- LA Clippers star Kawhi Leonard returned to the court Wednesday night wearing a face guard designed to protect stitches on the bottom of his lip and side of his jaw inside his mouth.
Despite the new mask, which had his teammates jokingly calling him "Leatherface," Leonard otherwise looked like himself in his return from a two-game absence since suffering a mouth laceration that required eight stitches on Christmas night. He had 28 points, 7 assists and 3 steals to lead the Clippers to a 128-105 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Afterward, Leonard said it took him time to get used to playing with his new accessory.
"Just where the injury is, it's a little difficult," said Leonard, who hit 9 of 17 shots. "Some guys have cheek fractures or they break their nose, and mine is really like trying to protect the stitches from getting hit and ripped, so it's a different scenario. You're trying to protect the lips, my jaw and my cheek."
Leonard's face guard was open around his eyes and nose but protected his jawline and the area around his mouth and lips. He said he missed the previous two games because he had to wait until he could open his mouth, talk and find the right protective face gear.
Leonard had not talked to reporters since before he was forced out of the Clippers' win in Denver last Friday in the fourth quarter with a bloodied mouth due to an inadvertent elbow from teammate Serge Ibaka. But a light-hearted Leonard described the playful ribbing he has taken from teammates.
"I mean s---, it's hard to breathe in that mask," Leonard said. "You know they start calling me 'Leatherface' and stuff."
"But Serge can't talk too much," Leonard added of his good friend Ibaka, who also played with Leonard in Toronto. "We got him on the trading block right now, so whoever wants him, let us know. We're trying to trade Serge."
Having Leonard back in the starting lineup was a welcome sight for the Clippers (4-1).
Without their All-Star forward, the Clippers played two completely different games. They suffered the worst defeat in franchise history when they lost 124-73 to Dallas on Sunday before blowing out Minnesota 124-101 on Tuesday.
"They just played terrible, terrible basketball," Leonard said of the Clippers, who trailed by 50 at halftime to the Mavericks, the largest halftime deficit in NBA history.
With Leonard back, the Clippers harassed Blazers star Damian Lillard (20 points) into 3-for-14 shooting, including an 0-for-8 night from behind the 3-point arc. Leonard scored 16 of his points in the third quarter, when he frequently pushed the pace off defensive rebounds while also collecting two steals.
"I thought early on, especially in the first half, he was a little tired, a little winded," Clippers coach Ty Lue said. "I thought in the third quarter, he really pushed himself and start attacking the paint, started playing with force and playing with pace, so I thought he got his second wind. ... He really took over that third quarter and built the lead for us."
Leonard said he might have to use a mouthpiece and that the team is still working on improving the face guard, which he will have to wear until his stitches heal.
Leonard said everything that has happened in 2020 around the world and amid the COVID-19 pandemic has given him perspective to try to enjoy as many moments as he can and not worry about minor things on the court.
"Everything that everyone's going through in the world with this pandemic, losing loved ones, it puts a perspective on life," Leonard said. "You know, we're only here so long and life in general goes by fast, and even playing in this league goes by even sooner, so you can't be stressing on the floor.
"You have to really enjoy these moments because either down by 20 or up by 20 in a game, this is the most fun you're going to have in basketball ... so you just got to enjoy this moment, I believe."