With Kawhi Leonard out, Warriors and Clippers see their circumstances flip

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FILE - Los Angeles Clippers guard Paul George dribbles during the second half in Game 6.
Clippers guard Paul George controls the ball during a playoff game against the Utah Jazz in June. Paul sees it as his responsibility to lead the Clippers with Kawhi Leonard out. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Two years ago the Clippers landed here at the start of a new beginning for the franchise down one injured all-star for the season’s first road trip while preparing for a Golden State team missing one of its own, in Klay Thompson.

Here they go again to Chase Center for Thursday’s opener in a new chapter, four months after their breakthrough moment — a berth in their first conference final. The prized additions from the 2019 offseason, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, have since committed to long-term contracts through 2025. There is an element of déjà vu to the Clippers’ debut: Only one of those all-NBA talents, George, is healthy. And awaiting them, again, are the Thompson-less Warriors.

George observed from the sideline for the first month of the 2019 season while recovering from shoulder surgery.

“Now, roles have flipped,” George said Wednesday. “I’m starting without him this year, so I gained a little bit off of what I saw. He led the team when I was out, kept us competitive, kept us in it, and now it’s essentially my turn to lead the team and keep us afloat, keep us going.

“Don’t know when his timetable is. But if there is a return, hopefully we’re positioned right where we want to be and we’re a strong team going down the stretch.”

Leonard, he noted, was “sharp” in his preparation, setting a precise example for his teammates. The Clippers should be sharp Thursday, too. With nine days between their preseason finale and Thursday, the Clippers staged essentially a second training camp, enough time for coach Tyronn Lue to continue to hammer his talking points.

The Clippers didn’t talk as much as Lue wanted. They didn’t get back on defense. And the starting lineup of George, guards Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Jackson, forward Marcus Morris and center Ivica Zubac didn’t play together at all with Morris on the mend, missing each preseason game. That unit got some time together in recent days, but “practice is totally different than playing in the game,” Lue said.

Morris won’t be the only player whose conditioning and minutes are under close watch Thursday, Lue said.

“We got to be smart about our players, making sure PG and Reggie and those guys, we’re not running them into the ground that first game, especially with the intensity and how hard Golden State plays.”

Nine Clippers who played in June’s season finale return, and that number doesn’t include those unable to because of injury – Leonard and centers Ivica Zubac and Serge Ibaka. Ibaka will not play Thursday but has begun playing five-on-five, a precursor to a full return. Otherwise healthy Clippers also out for Game 1 are reserve forward Nicolas Batum (personal reasons) and rookie Keon Johnson (illness).

The uncertainty surrounding Leonard’s availability this season weakens the Clippers in the shortterm. There is no easy substitute to compensate for Leonard, a Finals most valuable player winner for two franchises who is expected to be named among the league’s top 75 players in history Thursday. But the confidence and continuity gained from last season makes them dangerous nonetheless, the Clippers believe.

“I can understand the perspective from outside because when you lose maybe your best player, one of the top five players in this league things can change,” Batum said. “But for us, we want to keep building from what happened last year.”

An abbreviated, 72-game schedule last season afforded Lue, who was hired one year ago Wednesday, relatively little time to find what worked for his roster; he waited 10 games before making his first major rotation changes. The league calendar has returned to its 82-game format again, not that it affords much more time for patience — not with the Clippers’ expectations and the little room for error they’ll have to meet them in a conference defined this season by parity.

The Clippers who watched Golden State’s victory Tuesday against the Lakers know the Warriors will want to jump on them right from the start. Stephen Curry’s 24.4 points per game average against the Clippers is his fifth-highest against any Western Conference opponent in his career.

Last summer the Warriors pursued Batum heavily in free agency for a second consecutive year, and upon striking out again filled his role with Nemanja Bjelica, who finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds off the bench in the victory against the Lakers. The Lakers were physical defensively, a blueprint the Clippers must follow, George said.

“They move the ball, it’s scary,” George said. “Steph didn’t shoot it well, and they still win.”

Lue didn’t feel nerves beforeopeners as a player for 11 NBA seasons, and only during his first handful of games in 2016 coaching in Cleveland, as a first-time head coach, did he feel butterflies. Two years after watching a new era of his career unfold in San Francisco, George has said he arrives to his 12th season feeling “peace.”

“I want to be great this year,” he said. “I want to be great for our team. That’s all that matters.”

Up first for the Clippers

Thursday at Golden State

When: 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 570

Update: The NBA altered rules before this season to reduce the foul calls awarded to shooters making what the league has called overt, abrupt or abnormal non-basketball moves. Two examples the league used in educating its officials involved Warriors guard Stephen Curry jumping into a defender, and Paul George hooking the arm of his defender. George said it wouldn’t change the way he plays. “I mean I don't play to get fouled anyway, I mean I shot, what, three free throws last year,” said George, who averaged 4.2 per game in the regular season, and 8.1 per game in the postseason. Curry on Tuesday become only the second player in Warriors (1-0) history to record a season-opening triple-double Tuesday, joining Andy Phillip of the then-Philadelphia Warriors in 1952. Klay Thompson remains out while recovering from right Achilles’ tendon tear; he has yet to play a game since June 13, 2019.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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