Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and John Wall watched from baseline seats as the Clippers opened their preseason Friday night at Climate Pledge Arena. They won’t stay sidelined for long.
Those Clippers veterans who sat out Friday’s 121-81 win over Israel’s Macabbi Ra’anana for scheduled rest — a group that also included Norman Powell, Nicolas Batum and Reggie Jackson — are likely to make their debuts Monday when they play here against the Portland Trail Blazers. Coach Tyronn Lue specified that Leonard would play, marking his first game since injuring his right knee June 14, 2021.
Also making his return to the NBA after a long absence will be Wall, who last played April 23, 2021. Wall went through a pregame workout with assistant Brian Shaw despite not suiting up later.
What Lue says he wants to see during the preseason are signs his team can live up to his expectations of becoming one of the league’s top defenses.
“That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on this year is trying to be a great defensive team,” Lue said.
“Getting Kawhi up to speed is first and most important, but then [George] always sets the tone by guarding the best player, and with those two guys on the floor we should really be a great defensive team,” Lue said.
His reasoning: Without Leonard all of last season, and with George available for only 31 games because of injuries, the Clippers still finished with the NBA’s eighth-best defensive rating, giving up 109.5 points per 100 possessions. The areas of improvement were obvious: With rebounding a struggle all season, the Clippers saw opponents score a league-high-tying 15 points per game on second-chance opportunities, and also ranked in the bottom third of the league in fast-break points allowed.
“Adding those two guys back, we should be really good and we should be elite, and so it shouldn’t be any excuse for that,” Lue said.
Those will be areas Lue can evaluate come Monday with Leonard, George and the others back in the lineup against the Trail Blazers.
Facing overmatched Maccabi Ra’anana, Lue wanted to see whether the team could “play the right way” after just three days of training camp in Las Vegas. The Clippers rolled to a victory, leading by 21 points after one quarter and 35 at halftime as one of the veterans who did play, wing Robert Covington, repeatedly took advantage of errant passes for steals that led to easy baskets.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.