LOS ANGELES After missing the entire season while rehabilitating from an ACL injury, expecting that Kawhi Leonard would actually make a scheduled appearance in a legitimate NBA game almost felt like a pump fake.
He waited until the game was in full swing, some 18 minutes into it, before exploding onto the court and giving everyone plenty of hope that the Los Angeles Clippers could finally live up to their championship promise.
Kawhi Leonard doesn’t often seem enthusiastic, and given his reputation in load management, the word “joy” wouldn’t be used to describe getting back on the floor. However, he played with vigour, intention, and a strategy.
He was the Clippers’ 11th man on Thursday, but it didn’t matter because he demonstrated a lot in those 21 minutes. He found his midrange areas and made his first two jump shots, finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds.
When the Los Angeles Lakers went on several emotional runs, Kawhi Leonard was the one who patiently and clinically dotted LeBron James’ eye with a wing shot to play closer one last time. His defensive awareness was still razor-sharp.
Since Kawhi Leonard’s last game against the Utah Jazz in the 2021 Western Conference Semifinals, when he was perhaps playing the most effective basketball of his career, a lot has changed.
Luka Doncic made a move toward stardom. Giannis Antetokounmpo, who Kawhi Leonard stopped in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals, became a household name and put an end to any claims that he wasn’t deserving of legendary status.
Stephen Curry recaptured his position, and the Lakers, well, they replaced older, more mismatched pieces surrounding James.
So not everything was reversed. However, the league is still active, and Kawhi Leonard is now a cunning 31 years old. Although it’s amusing to refer to him as the “half-terminator/half-a-season,” the Clippers must think strategically and it won’t be for self-interest.
Leonard allegedly researched players who had experienced comparable ailments, their approaches, and their setbacks before deciding that the best way to make a debut would be to come off the bench and play in three extended spurts.
When I first began my career, I did this,” Kawhi Leonard stated. “I approached it mentally in that way, as if I were in serious trouble. After I check in, the fun can begin.
Kawhi Leonard stated that if he had started the game, he would have had to sit for 35 continuous minutes in actual time. It involves a commitment to the little things, one that doesn’t always pay off, as well as a rejection of ego.
Ty Lue, coach of the Clippers, remarked, “I thought he looked excellent, but I thought he grew tired in parts.” After having sat for so long, “I thought he had terrific pop to start the game.”
Nothing about this will be simple, and because it’s the Clippers, any winning streak will likely be met with skepticism and scorn until they go through several rounds of the playoffs. Every good team in the West, with the exception of the Golden State Warriors, has weaknesses that can lead to disaster in addition to enthralling and tantalising moments, leading logical people to assume the Warriors can be dethroned from their perch.
Without Kawhi Leonard being healthy, everything fails. The Clippers’ executive team felt that the roster needed to be strengthened more at point guard and that they could have open discussions with John Wall in free agency without having to put on a show for him.
Depth helps a team operate like a sane unit over the rigours of 82 games, providing talented individuals keep their emotions in check. The Clippers will do everything in their power to retain Leonard as near to full strength as possible before the postseason starts because stars carry you when the winter comes to spring and Leonard’s playoff resume has demonstrated a habit of constant elevation.
It makes the job harder for Lue, who is without a doubt the best coach in the NBA and is a magician on the sidelines. Coaching the league’s deepest squad is challenging enough without having to worry about players missing expected action or developing continuity due to minute limits.
If Leonard and Paul George are inked, he can end a game with a variety of combinations on any given night.
“It’s going to be a process to figure it all out when players are playing good and guys are rolling,” Lue said. “Until we figure out the rotations and minutes and who we want to give them to.” “I’ve got to sort it out too,” she said.
He laughed and responded, “It is. That’s the hardest part of my job. Yeah. Yeah.”
It’s difficult, but we have to keep going all year, Lue remarked. “With the minute limitations and the men coming and going. Both managing and playing that way are difficult. We must make do with what we have.
Since Lue hasn’t lost to the Lakers since taking over two years ago, a victory against them in the season opener isn’t as remarkable as it once was. As Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, and Kendrick Nunn combined to shoot 1 for 25, not every team will have horrendous guard play to help Leonard and Wall slow-walk this process.
It’s conceivable that Thursday will serve as a kind of microcosm for the entire campaign. The Clippers occasionally outperformed the Lakers, playing with them and repeatedly posing the threat of taking 20-point leads.
Next, there were slip-ups that made you shake your head. It isn’t haughtiness or disrespect for the opposition, but rather occasional careless plays that you wouldn’t expect from a champion.
Theoretically, Kawhi Leonard playing 35 minutes every game for 60 games may moderate those extreme situations. Leonard, though, was present when the Clippers lost a 3-1 lead to Denver in the Orlando bubble in 2020, proving that not even he is immune to falling victim to the evil karma that has dogged this team for ages.
This season, the Clippers’ guiding principles will be making sacrifices and grabbing opportunities. There can be too much talent, especially if it isn’t used effectively and regularly. This is especially true if the reliable headliner can’t be counted on to end the performance before the lights come back on.