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Clippers bring Kawhi Leonard off bench in season opener

Coach Tyronn Lue says having the two-time Finals MVP, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury, is so they can avoid having him sit for long stretches

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, left, sits on the bench, where he remained for a good portion of the first half of their season opener against the Lakers on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-ɫ̳/SCNG)
Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, left, sits on the bench, where he remained for a good portion of the first half of their season opener against the Lakers on Thursday night at Crypto.com Arena. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-ɫ̳/SCNG)

LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard was at Crytpo.com Arena but not where he was expected to be for the tip-off.

Instead of taking his place on the court for the start of the season opener against the Lakers on Thursday night, Leonard was on the bench in his blue-and-red warm-ups. And that’s where he stayed until the 6:25 mark of the second quarter.

He checked into the game, shed his warm-ups and within seconds had his first basket. He intercepted an errant shot by Anthony Davis and sprinted down the court for a 16-foot jump shot. He added another jumper 20 seconds later.

He finished the half with four points, two rebounds and the Clippers and Lakers tied. He had a chance to score as the clock ticked down, but he got tied up in the corner and kicked it out.

Coach Tyronn Lue said before the game that having Leonard come off the bench was a calculated move – because he can close out a game, they didn’t want him sitting for long stretches.

“How he felt was the most important thing for us and for him as well,” Lue said. “Like I said, it’s just something we’re trying tonight. It might not work, and he might not like it. We might do something different. It’s just what we’re going with tonight.”

Leonard wasn’t disengaged. He wasn’t pouting or seemingly unhappy with his place on the bench. He followed along as the starters dominated the paint, scoring eight of their first 11 points inside.

Leonard watched guard John Wall, who also started the game on the bench, check in at the 5:54 mark of the first quarter and as the rest of the team built a double-digit lead.

Lue has said that with the number of stars on the team, there are going to be nights when not everyone gets to play. And that included Leonard, a five-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion.

“That’s what we’ve been about, just sacrifice for the team and whatever for the team,” Lue said. “Just with him I think he wanted to do what was best for the team and I just thought whatever was best for him, whatever makes him feel better and being out for 15 months, what was the best thing for him as far as health-wise and how he would feel?”

Lue said Leonard fared well in practices and scrimmages when he started and came off the bench. It could set the tone for the season.


After days of saying he didn’t know who would start at point guard, Lue inserted Reggie Jackson in the lineup over Wall for the opener. But Lue cautioned against reading too much into his choice.

“Anything can change. Reggie’s done a great job the last three years he’s been here. He understands our system, whereas John’s picked it up quick,” Lue said. “But whatever’s best for the team.”

Part of having Wall come off the bench is to “protect him,” according to Lue. Wall did not play last season and the coaches want to bring him along slowly.

“We gotta be smart with him as well,” Lue said. “John has played great. It’s not about who’s the best player, it’s what’s the best fit and what’s the best fit for our team right now. So, things could always change.”


Lue is aware of the hype surrounding the Clippers. Everyone from TNT analysts to Vegas oddsmakers are listing them as favorites to contend for the NBA championship this season. Yet, Lue said he really hasn’t addressed the outside talk and expectations with the team.


“We have inside expectations, as well, and so we know we want to win a championship and my job and our job – as players – is to put ourselves in the best position to do that,” he said.

Lue said if the Clippers are going to have a chance to live up to the preseason hype they need to focus on fundamentals, such as rebounding and defense, for the 82 regular-season games before they can start thinking about titles.

“You can do everything right, do everything hard, be great and still not win,” Lue said. “But if you’re doing all the right things and get to that point, to that position, you feel good about it. So, it’s not any pressure.

“We know we’re expected to be pretty good this year, and you want that pressure, that means you have a chance to win a championship, so it’s no need to be here if you’re not trying to win, so I like the expectations.”

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