Kawhi Leonard’s return provides enduring moment for Clippers

In official statistics, Monday’s exhibition here between the Clippers and Portland will never count.

But try telling the Clippers, who watched the return of all-world forward Kawhi Leonard and former All-Star point guard John Wall after each endured lengthy absences, that their 102-97 victory didn’t count for something.

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

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who built his Microsoft fortune and his die-hard basketball fandom here, grabbed a microphone before tipoff at the center of Climate Pledge Arena’s court and declared, at the top of his decibel range, that “this is a basketball city, dammit!”

It could take years to know whether Seattle receives another NBA team, though Jamal Crawford, the Seattle-raised, longtime NBA player and former Clippers star reserve, is among those optimistic that this arena, which is designed for NBA basketball, can help lure a franchise.

There were much quicker returns on the status of Leonard, who made his first shot, a three-pointer, only 15 seconds into the first quarter, his first basket since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the second round of the postseason on June 14, 2021.

And Wall, who came off the bench in his first game against NBA competition since April 2021, still displayed the burst to get to the paint and leave defenders at the three-point arc while looking for passes for a big man, just as he did at the height of his powers in Washington.

“Just for him and Kawhi both, all the hard work they did to get back to this position to get back on stage, it just shows you the dedication they have and all the hard work they put in,” coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff. “It’s going to be the first step of a long journey, we understand that.”

There was so much pageantry surrounding this game that at first the action on court fell into the backdrop, with former Seattle players Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf receiving a chorus of cheers when they stood together during a first-half break in play. Lenny Wilkens, the coach of Seattle’s lone NBA title team, received a standing ovation during the first quarter. Macklemore, the Seattle-raised rapper, told fans before tipoff this night was 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 with Leonard and Paul George back healthy.

Leonard scored 11 points in 16 first-half minutes, making three of eight shots, with four rebounds, while George scored 12 points with seven rebounds in 16 minutes. Lue said it was his plan to play his top contributors only the first half.

With Marcus Morris Sr. absent for the birth of a child, Nicolas Batum started at power forward but the job belongs to Morris, Lue said before tipoff, with Batum his backup.

The only starting job up for competition with two preseason games remaining is point guard. Reggie Jackson started Monday but Wall will get a chance to play with starters in their next exhibition Sunday.

Lue experimented with lineups as expected, including a smaller look with Wall, Leonard, Norman Powell, George and Ivica Zubac that opened the second quarter. It was an intriguing usage of Powell, who has declared his goal to be the starting shooting guard but has been told by Lue to embrace the role of sixth man.

“Sixth man of the year, coming in and scoring the basketball, no backup player should be able to guard him in any unit,” Lue said.

Terance Mann and Jason Preston did not dress after playing in Friday’s preseason opener.

The only other hiccup for the Clippers occurred when Luke Kennard turned an ankle in the first half and did not return.

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