Kawhi Leonard made his long-awaited return to the LA Clippers lineup after missing the entire 2021-22 season.
Leonard hadn't played since suffering a knee injury in the Clippers' run to the Western Conference semifinals in 2021 and in his first game back, the 31-year-old showed no signs of rust in the Clippers' 103-97 win over the Lakers — their eighth-straight win over their local rivals.
The Clippers opted for a cautious approach to his first game back, playing him just 21 minutes off the bench — the first time he's come off the bench since 2013 while playing for the San Antonio Spurs.
Since then, he'd started 447 straight regular season games and 100 playoff games.
"I feel good, we did an amazing job, the Clippers staff, just putting together a team for me to get better and come out here quickly," Leonard said in his on-court postgame interview
"They matched my motivation of getting back, so that's all you can ask for, for our group."
Kawhi gets to his spots with ease
Despite missing 16 months due to injury, Leonard looked more than comfortable once he checked into the game with 6:25 remaining in the second quarter.
Less than 30 seconds later, he was on the board after hauling in a rebound and taking it coast-to-coast for a tough fadeaway jumper after absorbing contact from Juan Toscano-Anderson.
Kawhi feelin' it! pic.twitter.com/ca7v8MCvAo— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) October 21, 2022
"I thought he looked good," Clippers head coach Ty Lue said postgame. "I thought he got tired in stretches, but I thought he had good pop to start the game after sitting for so long."
Leonard finished with a line of 14 points on on 6-of-12 shooting, adding seven rebounds, two assists and a steal in 21 minutes.
Clippers depth making things easier
Outside of Leonard's return, the Clippers also got to see John Wall in the lineup for the first time as he made his regular-season debut.
Starting on the bench alongside Leonard, Wall made a big impact when he got in the game, pushing the pace and creating scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Wall's addition to the Clippers takes a lot of offensive burden away from Leonard, freeing him up to attack off the ball.
With the addition of Wall to the rotation, the Clippers depth is already looking dangerous as six different players scored in double figures in the win.
"It's amazing, you see tonight, everybody's out there contributing on the defensive and offensive end and as a leader, me and PG we gotta know who's on our team and know we don't gotta do it every night," Leaonrd said of the team's deep rotation.
"But we've got to show up in the big moments in the fourth quarter, just trying to be stars in our role. Everybody's just trying to be great in their minutes and I think thats going to help us moving forward."
The road ahead
As he continues to build momentum this season, Leonard suggested to Lue that he could start off the bench until he's at full flight and it's expected he'll take a cautious approach in the opening weeks of the season.
During his postgame press conference, Leonard indicated he would likely sit out one of the Clippers' next two games, which features a back-to-back against the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns.