With Clippers short-handed and stumbling, Luke Kennard regains his shot at right time

Los Angeles Clippers guard Luke Kennard (5) dribbles the ball during the second half of an NBA basketball.
Clippers guard Luke Kennard controls the ball during Thursday’s loss to the Washington Wizards. Kennard finished the game with 14 points, four assists and four rebounds. (Nick Wass / Associated Press)

The NBA’s All-Star break came at an opportune time for the Clippers, who left Washington late Thursday having lost a third consecutive game for the first time this season.

There was one Clipper who might not have minded playing another game as soon as possible: Luke Kennard.

Out of the rotation for nearly three weeks, the 6-foot-5 backup guard was inserted because of withered depth Thursday and responded with 14 points, four assists and four rebounds against the Wizards, making four of five three-pointers.

In a two-point loss, the Clippers (24-14) outscored Washington by 23 points during Kennard’s 20 minutes.

“More aggressive than I have been the last few times I’ve played,” he said, adding it was “just a game I can grow off of.”

The way he shot quickly and created confidently against the Wizards was what the Clippers have hoped for from Kennard since trading for the former Detroit guard in November.

He’s not only a 40% career three-point shooter, but Kennard also has tantalizing potential to create off the dribble, and with backup guard Lou Williams in the final year of his contract, Kennard appears in line to be the focal point of the bench’s scoring in future seasons, especially after signing a four-year extension worth a guaranteed $56 million that will kick in following this season.

Both Kennard and his teammates understood that his adjustment would take time. Recovery from bilateral knee tendinitis, which shut down his final season in Detroit, held him out of an NBA game for a calendar year. During the preseason, he apologized to teammates for too often pump-faking or passing when an open shot presented itself. By early February, he admonished himself for not competing as hard as he could. Two weeks later, his rotation minutes were given to second-year guard Terance Mann.

“At first it was a thing of, it’s a new team, I want to fit in, I want to be a good teammate and just kind of play my role with the team,” Kennard said. “But talking to the coaches and even my teammates, they want me to just be me and be aggressive, so just keeping that in my mind and working on the side on off days, just getting in the gym and working on my game and having that mentality when I am working, it’s just to be myself.

“I know what I’m capable of; I know what I can do. These guys trust me; they trust in what I can do.”

Coach Tyronn Lue felt Kennard, who threw a no-look pass for a dunk, looked visibly comfortable back on the court.

“You don’t want to go out and try to be a robot out there,” Kennard said. “You want to play free, you want to be yourself. They brought me here for a reason and yeah, it’s just having fun. We’re playing basketball.”

Before Thursday, Kennard had played 18 combined minutes in his last four appearances. He had not played in three other games despite being healthy. Lue attributed Kennard’s lost rotation spot to “really nothing he’s done,” saying Kennard had “been doing all the right things” while playing in five-on-five practice games with younger players including Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele under the watch of player-development staffers.

“Right now it’s a long season,” Lue said before tipoff. “You know how the season is; anything can happen.”

Less than 90 minutes later, something did: Paul George was a late scratch because of dizziness. With Marcus Morris also unable to play because of a concussion, Kennard became the fourth and final player to play off the bench.

“He was great for us,” Lue said. “I was happy to see Luke play well.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.