Kawhi Leonard's return shows microcosm of sacrifice the Clippers will need to quell doubt this season

Kawhi Leonard's return shows microcosm of sacrifice the Clippers will need to quell doubt this season

Updated: 5 months, 9 days, 21 hours, 19 minutes, 25 seconds ago

LOS ANGELES — It almost felt like a pump fake, believing Kawhi Leonard would actually make a scheduled appearance in a real NBA game after missing an entire season recovering from an ACL injury.

And even though he patiently waited until the game was in a full lather — some 18 minutes in — he exploded onto the floor and gave everyone ample reason to believe the Los Angeles Clippers can finally fulfill their championship promise.

Leonard rarely looks excited and with the load management reputation he’s garnered, “joy” wouldn’t be among the adjectives used to describe getting back on the floor. But he played with bounce and purpose, and with a plan.

It didn’t matter he was the Clippers’ 11th man Thursday, because those 21 minutes showed plenty. He got to his midrange spots, hitting his first two jumpers on his way to scoring 14 points and grabbing seven rebounds.

His defensive awareness was still pinpoint, and when the Los Angeles Lakers made multiple emotional runs, it was Leonard who clinically and patiently dotted LeBron James’ eye with a wing jumper to play closer one more time.

So much has happened from the last time Leonard played, in the 2021 Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz where he was playing arguably the most efficient ball of his career.

Luka Doncic took a step into superstardom. Giannis Antetokounmpo — a man Leonard shut down in the 2019 East finals — became a made man and shut down all the talk of not being worthy of legendary status.

Stephen Curry reclaimed his spot and the Lakers — well, they replaced ill-fitting pieces around James with younger, more ill-fitting pieces.

So not everything turned on its head. But the league doesn’t stop moving, and Leonard is now a sneaky 31 years old. While it’s easy — and humorous — to call him “half-terminator/half-a-season,” the Clippers must take the long-game approach and it won’t be for vanity reasons.

Leonard was said to study players who had similar injuries and how they recovered, their approaches and setbacks — thus deciding that coming off the bench and playing in three long spurts would be the best way to debut.

“I did this before, when I started my career,” Leonard said. “That’s how I approached it mentally, like I was in foul trouble. Once I check in, it’s time to play.”

Leonard said he didn’t want to sit 35 straight minutes of real time, which would’ve been the case had he started the game. It’s not just a rejection of ego but a dedication to the small details, one that doesn’t always pay off.

“I thought he looked good, I thought he got tired in stretches,” Clippers coach Ty Lue said. “I thought he had good pop to start the game after sitting for so long.”

None of this will be easy, and because it’s the Clippers, a fair amount of doubt and derision will accompany any winning streak until they advance through multiple rounds of the playoffs. Short of the Golden State Warriors, every good team in the West has flaws that can spell doom to go along with spellbinding and tantalizing moments — causing rational people to believe the Warriors can be unseated atop their perch.

If Leonard isn’t healthy, everything falls apart. The roster built by the Clippers’ front office was deep enough to have honest conversations with John Wall in free agency without the need to blow smoke his way, while also feeling like the point guard spot needed further fortifying.

Depth, assuming talented players keep their feelings in check, keeps a team performing like a sane outfit through the rigors of 82 games. But stars carry you when the winter turns to spring, and Leonard’s playoff resume has shown a history of consistent elevation — which is why the Clippers will do everything in their power to keep him as close to optimal strength before the postseason begins.

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Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard is defended by Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook in the second half of their game at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on Oct. 20, 2022. The Clippers defeated the Lakers, 103-97. (Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

It makes the job more difficult for Lue, who’s a wizard on the sideline and sitting from here, no doubt the league’s best. Developing continuity with minute restrictions and players missing expected action makes a job in coaching the league’s deepest team even more difficult.

On a given night, he can close a game with a myriad combination — provided Leonard and Paul George are written in ink.

“When guys are playing good and guys are rolling, until we figure out the rotations and minutes and who we want to give them to, it’s gonna be a process to figure it all out,” Lue said. “I’ve gotta figure it out as well.”

When asked if that’s the toughest part of his job, he laughed, “It is. Yeah. Yeah.”

“It’s tough, we have to continue to do it all year,” Lue said. “With the minute restrictions and guys being in and out. It’s hard to manage, it’s hard to play that way as well. We gotta take what we can get.”

A season-opening win over the Lakers isn’t so much noteworthy now, as Lue hasn’t lost to them since taking over two years ago. And not every team will have ghastly guard play to aid in Leonard and Wall slow-walking this process, as Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley and Kendrick Nunn combined to shoot 1 for 25.

One can imagine Thursday will be somewhat a microcosm of this entire season. At times, the Clippers looked worlds better than the Lakers, toying with them and threatening to take 20-point leads multiple times.

Then, there were moments of lapses that leave you shaking your head. It’s not arrogance or disrespect to opponents, but spurts of boneheaded plays you don’t see champions making.

In theory, Leonard being around 35 minutes a night — perhaps for 60 games — can quell those extreme moments a bit. But Leonard was around when the Clippers blew that 3-1 lead to Denver in the Orlando bubble in 2020, so not even he is immune to being sucked right into whatever bad juju has surrounded this franchise for eons.

Making sacrifices and seizing opportunity will be a theme for the Clippers this season. There is a such thing as too much talent, particularly if it isn’t harnessed properly and consistently — and especially if the dependable headliner can’t be relied upon to close the show before the lights come back on.