Kawhi Leonard’s return provides enduring moment for Clippers

Monday’s preseason show here between the Clippers and the Portland Trail Blazers will never be included in the official stats, but tell that to the Clippers, who are seeing the return of former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and former All-Star point guard John Wall pursued after long NBA absences that it didn’t count for something.

And tell that to the more than 18,000 viewers who watched the return of NBA basketball in the shadow of the Space Needle for only the second time in 14 years since the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who grew his Microsoft fortune and inveterate basketball fandom here, grabbed a microphone in the center of the court at the Climate Pledge Arena before tipoff and declared to the highest decibel limit, “This is a goddamn basketball town ! ”

It could be years before we know if Seattle will get another NBA team, although Jamal Crawford, the Seattle-raised longtime NBA player and former Clippers star reserve, is among the optimists that this arena dedicated to NBA basketball designed can help attract a franchise. Leonard and Wall, meanwhile, gave much quicker answers on the status of their comebacks. After lulling Portland center Jusuf Nurkic with a side-to-side dribble, Leonard made his first shot, a three, just 15 seconds into the first quarter — his first basket since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the second had round of the postseason in June 2021.

Leonard, who hadn’t played five-a-side until the start of training camp last week, said he misses being on the ground.

“It was funny because [Paul George] asked me if I had that [nervous] Pregame blisters, like the stomach, I’m like, no,” said Leonard, who scored 11 points in 16 minutes of first-half work while also setting up teammates for open shots due to the attention his drives were drawing.

“Maybe there’s a little wing floating around there. I felt the same today as in any other game. I felt mentally prepared. I felt like the coaching staff, coaches, coaches, doctors all did a great job to get me to this point. It’s not over yet. It will still be a process for me to get better. I just enjoy it.”

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer speaks loudly into a microphone as players look on.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer greets fans Monday for the preseason game between the Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers in Seattle.

(John Froschauer/Associated Press)

And Wall, coming off the bench in his first game against NBA competition since April 2021, still showed the breakout to get the paint and leave defenders in three-point arcs while looking for passes for a big man , just like the former No. 1 overall pick at the height of his power in Washington.

“Just for him and Kawhi, all the hard work they’ve put in to get back into that position, to get back on stage just shows you the dedication they have and all the hard work they’ve put in invested,” said coach Tyronn Lue before the tip. “It will be the first step in a long journey, we understand that.”

There was so much pageantry surrounding that game that the action on the court initially took a backseat as former Sonics players Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf received a chorus of cheers as they came in at a break stood together in the game in the first half. Lenny Wilkens, the coach of Seattle’s only NBA title, received a standing ovation in the first quarter. Macklemore, the Seattle-raised rapper, told fans ahead of tonight’s tip to show “the world” that Seattle needs an NBA team.

What they saw instead was a Clippers team that Portland coach Chauncey Billups said had all the elements of a championship contender and whose first defensive performance together was praised by Lue. George scored 12 points with seven rebounds in 16 minutes in a half-work.

Wall made one of his four shots with three assists and two turnovers. Had it been a regular-season game, Wall said he would have been in “attack mode,” but he wanted to work on getting fellow second-unit teammates Norman Powell and Luke Kennard on their shots. But this wasn’t another game, not after he didn’t play last season following a mutual agreement with the Houston Rockets to sit out the team’s rebuild.

“When I went into the tunnel to warm up and stuff, it was like I started hitting myself,” Wall said.

The only starting job for the competition with two preseason games remaining is point guard. Reggie Jackson started Monday, but Wall will get a chance to play with starters on her next show Sunday. With Marcus Morris Sr. absent due to the birth of a child, Nicolas Batum started in his place as power forward, but the starting job belongs to Morris, Lue said before the tip, with Batum as a replacement.

Lue experimented with lineups as expected, including a smaller look with Wall, Leonard, Norman Powell, George and Ivica Zubac opening the second quarter. Not yet seen is an all-wings lineup from Leonard, George, Morris, Batum and Robert Covington, which Lue said he wants. Powell had stated his goal of being the shooting guard, but was instructed by Lue to fill the sixth man role. He made one of his 11 shots.

“The sixth man of the year to come in and hit the basketball, no substitute should be able to guard him in any unit,” Lue said.

Terance Mann (broken ankle), Jason Preston (groin) didn’t get dressed due to injuries that Lue didn’t seem worried about. Similarly, Lue said Kennard, who twisted his ankle in the first half, would be fine.

https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2022-10-03/kawhi-leonard-return-john-wall-clippers-trail-blazers-recap Kawhi Leonard’s return provides enduring moment for Clippers

Emma Bowman

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