On the surface, this is just another game in the regular season, one of 82 in a long campaign that doesn’t particularly stand out. The Spurs have been very good to start the year, but have never been a rival of the Clippers, nor are considered on the same tier as the Clips as championship contenders. Kawhi Leonard was a long-time Spur, sure, but this game is in Los Angeles, so it’s not as big a deal as the game in San Antonio. Why, then, is this game more important than any other game?
Well, it’s the Clippers’ first back to back of the season (also their first three games in four nights stretch), and seeing how the Clips will handle Leonard is fascinating. Last year, in Toronto, he mostly sat out at least one leg of back to back contests as part of his load management policy. The Raptors took it very easy on him, and not overexerting him in a 24 hour period was a logical method to keep him healthy and ready for the playoffs. Too much has been written about Kawhi’s load management (and its effectiveness last year) to mention, but suffice to say that the Raptors looked pretty smart in June for all the odd nights during the regular season when Kawhi didn’t play.
So far, the Clippers and Kawhi have emphasized that he won’t be on such a program this season - that he will take these contests game by game. That’s all well and good, but now, when push comes to shove, will Kawhi play? Much of the skepticism surrounding the Clippers regular season record has had to do with Kawhi’s load management, and doubts that Kawhi would play a full 82 game schedule, or even close to it. If Kawhi plays against San Antonio, even with the soft minutes limit that Doc has on him (no more than 35, preferably in the low 30s), a lot of those doubts can be pushed to the side, for the time being. Kawhi looks healthy, he looks fantastic on the court, and if he’s ready to play back to backs on a regular basis, the Clippers win total could look a bit higher than originally predicted. Of course, the season is young, and things could change, but Kawhi playing in a back to back game in October (and a travel game, no less), would be highly encouraging.
If, on the other hand, Kawhi sits, that at least introduces the possibility of him undergoing at least some load management during the season outside of a minutes limit. It could end up being more because of the “three in four” than the back to back, or for any other reason, but Kawhi sitting out one half of a back to back would set a precedent of sorts. This would say nothing about Kawhi’s health – he obviously looks great – or even about the fear of another leg injury, but would at least hint at the way he might be managed the rest of the season. Therefore, this game is a big, big deal for Kawhi and the Clippers. It seems like it will pass quietly, with Kawhi suiting up like any other game, but its impossible to rule out load management yet.
However, whether Kawhi plays or not is far from the only reason why this game is important. As of this writing, the Spurs sit at a pretty 3-0 record, tied for best in the Western Conference. The season is in its infancy, but the Spurs look good – Dejounte Murray and Derrick White are beasts defensively, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan can still get buckets, and the rest of their roster fits the Spurs mold of competent role players. The Clippers will have played some tough games (opener against Lakers, tomorrow in Utah), but the Spurs are the first true test of not just a backcourt-powered team, but one with true All-Defense level players on the perimeter. Watching how the Clippers adjust to that pressure and the size and length of Murray and White will be fascinating and could well be a key to their victory.
Ultimately, it’s difficult to label any game this early in the season as being all that important. Still, if any game could be, this one against the Spurs counts. They’re good, they’re tough, they have a coach who knows Kawhi Leonard’s game better than anyone, and they will be taking the Clippers on during their first back to back of the season. Back to backs can test the mettle of even the finest teams, and the Clippers are no exception. This game, however, holds special significance because of what it might mean for Kawhi Leonard and his load management. If Kawhi Leonard plays, it’s a big deal for a Clippers team that has had the shadow of load management hanging over their regular season. If he doesn’t, well, that makes things interesting.
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