‘You wanna get games under your belt’: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers ready to start season
The Clippers’ starting point guard for Thursday’s season opener against the Lakers?
Coach Tyronn Lue wouldn’t say.
But his biggest concerns entering a season in which the Clippers haven’t ducked championship expectations? He let those be known before Wednesday’s final preseason practice, and each was a variation on the theme of self-inflicted mistakes, from protecting the basketball, to setting aside personal pride.
“Just making the easy, simple plays is one thing that concerns me right now,” Lue said. “Just, you know, taking care of the basketball.
“And then two is, like I’ve said, sacrifice, guys understanding that we have a deep team, we have Kawhi [Leonard] and [Paul George] back. Guys who played a big role for us last year offensively, you know, like Reggie and Marcus, Zu had more touches, Luke Kennard did a great job. … You might not get the same touches, you might not get the same minutes, so just having the sacrifice and understanding that, we got one common goal, that’s to win the game, and try to win a championship.”
Leonard and point guard John Wall, who will play his first counting game since April 2021, will be under minutes limits that Lue also would not disclose. The season’s early weeks will continue the acclimation process that began during training camp for both.
“We just got to make sure right now we’re doing right by those guys and even if they want to play more and do more, we can’t allow that to happen,” Lue said.
Whether Lue goes with Jackson or Wall as the starting ballhandler, to go with a lineup expected to include Leonard, George, forward Marcus Morris Sr. and center Ivica Zubac will be revealed later, but what has the Clippers most optimistic is knowing that everyone is healthy for the opener, including Leonard, who is back for his first counting game since injuring his right knee in June 2021.
After three weeks of preseason practices, Leonard said he felt good and hadn’t suffered any setbacks with his surgically repaired knee. Though he has recovered from a season-ending leg injury before in 2018, that’s where the similarities end, Leonard said. A deteriorating relationship between Leonard and San Antonio led to a trade to Toronto in 2018, and Leonard led the Raptors to a championship the following season after playing a careful allotment of minutes during the regular season.
“It’s been very different going through that and having the team behind my back and moving forward, [the Clippers] want what’s best for me,” Leonard said. “I’m seeing the same faces, so that’s like the difference.”
Leonard claimed not to have nervous energy before his first preseason game, an earlier benchmark in his recovery, but agreed that he is anxious to return to the floor for opening night.
“You wanna get games under your belt,” he said. “Obviously me, get game reps instead of practicing, and like I said, just keep building from the first game and that’s how we’re gonna see where we’re gonna go. It’s a process and it starts tomorrow.”
Wednesday’s practice was a walkthrough to prepare for the Lakers, whose transition offense caught the attention of Lue during their loss Tuesday to Golden State. Lue warned that the defense will start with limiting LeBron James and Russell Westbrook’s transition baskets. It is one of the many areas the coach has highlighted for improvement since the final preseason game one week earlier, a loss that Lue criticized for the Clippers’ sagging intensity. The team spent the days afterward scrimmaging twice. The result, Lue said, was that, “I feel better than I did five days ago.”
“We are so deep, so many veterans on this group, we are seasoned for whatever that comes to us,” George said. “For us, it is just staying the course, understanding that there are going to be some ups, there are going to be some downs, we will stay together. We have done it since I have been here. This group has been pretty tight.
“We will continue to do that. But we just, you know, we got to understand that at some point, something’s not going to go our way and that is where we have to get tighter, get closer as a group and make every day count.”
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