The game began with a heavy dose of Kawhi Leonard, as the Clippers’ new superstar made his impact felt from tip-off. He scored or assisted on almost all of the Clippers’ buckets the first few minutes of the game, showcasing his shooting, playmaking, and creation abilities to great effect. He and his teammates were definitely still a little unclear on positioning and spacing, but the overall offense looked far better than the Clippers first two games, even without Pat Beverley and Rodney McGruder. This was helped by Landry Shamet, who came out of his slump to nail a four-point play and a gorgeous layup.
Nor did the Clippers suffer when their backups came into the game. Moe Harkless continued his outstanding preseason run scoring without the ball and playing fantastic defense, and looked especially potent playing opposite Kawhi. Lou Williams, too, looked far too good for preseason, repeatedly getting to his spots and nailing his drifting jumpers. While the reserves struggled defensively, especially against the Nuggets’ potent backup backcourt, the ball moved smoothly around the court, and effort was at a near regular-season level. Kawhi and Shamet spearheaded the Clippers playmaking, and were able to consistently find big men rolling to the rim for easy dunks. Overall, the Clippers had played their sharpest half of basketball yet entering halftime, and held a 61-52 lead at the break.
Unfortunately, that changed in the second half. With Lou and Kawhi on the bench, the Clippers offense struggled mightily, scoring a mere 30 points across the 3rd and 4th quarters and giving the ball away far too frequently with careless passes. Other veterans such as Harkless and Ivica Zubac only played a few minutes as well, with most of the 4th quarter going to roster camp invitees, two-way players, and other non-rotation players. The result was a 20-point drubbing, but with the Clippers putting so little of their full strength out in the second half, there was little to take away.
Kawhi Dominates: After not playing much basketball since winning the NBA Championship in June, Kawhi showed very little sign of rust, scoring seven points and dishing six assists in 11 minutes while completely controlling the game offensively. He got to his spots with ease, rose up smoothly over defenders for threes, and made several beautiful passes to big men in the pick and roll. In short, he looked like a top five NBA player in his prime, which is exactly what Clippers fans were hoping to see. Familiarity with teammates (especially on defense) will come with time, but Kawhi looked healthy, strong, and as great as ever.
Lou and Trez cook: Of the Clippers veteran players, perhaps no two have looked as in synch as Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell. This is no surprise: they combined to form one of the greatest bench duos in NBA history last year. Still, it’s been a while since watching them in action, and their chemistry on the court remains something special to behold. The way Lou utilizes Trez’s screens and picks, the manner in which Trez navigates to provide the best possible path for Lou to create some space – all of it is just incredible. Lou particularly has simply scorched the opposition, with no defender seemingly capable of preventing him from going left. Trez, meanwhile, left it all on the court, as he always does, throwing down several monstrous dunks and talking some trash to superstar Nikola Jokic. These two look as potent as they did last year if not more so, and it will be a treat to watch them again this season.
Terance Mann belongs: Mann might have had his worst game thus far, as he turned the ball over four times to three assists, missed both his free throws, and generally didn’t make too great an impact in 28 minutes on the court. Still, he just looks like an NBA player out there. He’s smooth, he does the little things, and his passing vision is undeniable. Clearly, he needs to adjust to the ball-handling and playmaking duties of a full point guard, and the point guard learning curve in the NBA is tough enough without having to adapt to the very position along the way. But Mann just appears to have that “it factor” about him, and at this point it seems almost a certainty that he will play a role of actual note in this Clippers season. There will be bumps along the way, but it will all be part of the learning curve, and the future is very bright.
The Clippers next game is on Sunday against Melbourne United. Doc said that Kawhi would play in Vancouver against the Mavericks, so he probably won’t play Sunday, nor will McGruder, who’s out with an ankle sprain. It will once again be a lot of young guys making mistakes – but that’s what preseason is all about.