Clippers ready to start season with healthy Kawhi Leonard

The Clippers’ starting point for Thursday’s season opener against the Lakers?

Coach Tyronn Lue wouldn’t say it.

But his biggest concerns at the start of a season where the Clippers have not missed championship expectations? He let these know ahead of Wednesday’s final prep practice session, and each one was a variation on the theme of self-inflicted errors, from protecting the basketball to settling personal pride.

“Just making the easy, easy plays is one thing that’s on my mind right now,” Lue said. “I only care about basketball.

“And secondly, like I said, a sacrifice, the guys understand we have a strong team, we have Kawhi [Leonard] and [Paul George] the back. Guys who played a big role for us offensively last year, you know, like Reggie and Marcus, too had more touches, Luke Kennard did a great job. … You might not get the same touches, you might not get the same minutes, so we just made the sacrifice and understood that we have a common goal, which is to win the game and try to win a league.

Leonard and point guard John Wall, who will play his first stroke play since April 2021, will be under minute limits, which Lue would also not disclose. In the first weeks of the season, the acclimatization process that started for both of them in the training camp will continue.

“We just have to make sure now that we’re getting these guys right, and even if they want to play more and do more, we can’t let that happen,” Lue said.

Whether Lue leaves with Jackson or Wall as the starting ball handler to go with a lineup expected to include Leonard, George, forward Marcus Morris Sr. and center Ivica Zubac will be revealed later, but what makes the Clippers most optimistic is knowing everyone is healthy for the opener, including Leonard, who is back for his first stroke game since injuring his right knee in June 2021.

After three weeks of preseason training, Leonard said he was feeling good and hadn’t suffered any setbacks with his surgically repaired knee. Although he recovered from a season-ending leg injury back in 2018, that’s where the similarities end, Leonard said. A deteriorating relationship between Leonard and San Antonio led to a move to Toronto in 2018, and Leonard led the Raptors to a championship the following season after playing a careful allocation of minutes in the regular season.

“It was 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 see the same faces, so that’s the difference.”

Leonard claimed he lacked nervous energy ahead of his first game of the preseason, an earlier benchmark in his recovery, but agreed he is eager to return to the floor on opening night.

“You want to get games under your belt,” he said. “Obviously I’ll get game representatives instead of practicing and like I said just keep building from the first game and that’s how we’ll see where we go. It’s a process and it starts tomorrow.”

Wednesday’s practice was a run in preparation for the Lakers, whose transition offense caught Lue’s attention during Tuesday’s loss to Golden State. Lue warned that the defense will begin to limit transition baskets from LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. It’s one of many areas the manager has highlighted for improvement since the last preseason game a week earlier, a loss Lue criticized for the Clippers’ dwindling intensity. The team spent the days after that training twice. The result, Lue said, was, “I feel better than I did five days ago.”

“We’re so deep, so many veterans in this group, we’re seasoned for whatever’s coming,” George said. “For us it’s just about staying the course and understanding that there will be some ups, there will be some downs, we will stay together. We’ve done it since I got here. This group was pretty tight.

“We will continue to do so. But we just have to understand that at some point something isn’t going to go our way and that’s where we need to pull together, get closer as a group and count every day. Clippers ready to start season with healthy Kawhi Leonard

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