The words were already coming out of his mouth, and still a piece of Eric Smith did not believe what he was seeing and describing to be true.
Smith has been the Clippers’ public-address announcer for the last 16 seasons and has introduced thousands of starters before hundreds of games. No name, however, has ever registered the way Kawhi Leonard’s did Thursday night, with the Staples Center’s lights turned low and its crowd running loud, before the All-Star forward’s Clippers debut.
“To say it in the introduction, it was mind-blowing,” Smith said. “It still didn’t seem real until I actually said his name.”
It was real, all right. Or, as team owner Steve Ballmer called it, “fantastic.”
Leonard’s seven-point, six-assist night goes down as the most celebrated, anticipated preseason appearance in franchise history — a performance that came in a 111-91 Denver victory.
“It felt good,” Leonard said. “We prepared for this moment and it felt great just to be out there getting in rhythm.”
Fifteen months after the Clippers set their sights on adding Leonard in 2019 free agency, and three months after the two-time NBA Finals MVP made the team’s long-play pursuit worth it by committing to a three-year, $103-million contract, Leonard began by burying a 13-foot jump shot from the baseline, his first field-goal attempt.
Fourteen seconds later, he stole a deflected pass by Denver’s Gary Harris, ran upcourt to the wing opposite his team’s bench and, with one dribble and a powerful step backward off his right foot, created enough room from his defender to fire a three-pointer. Even before it went in, teammate Patrick Beverley had jumped out of his courtside seat.
“I thought he was absolutely wonderful,” coach Doc Rivers said. “He did just good stuff with passing and moving the ball. Shot the ball better than I thought he would.”
Leonard checked out four minutes into his debut, after asking for a substitute, then reappeared a little more than three minutes later. Though he was announced by the team as not playing only the night before, Leonard played 11 minutes, all in the first half.
He’d informed the team the previous day he wanted to play against Denver, Rivers said, to break rust off his game that had accumulated over the summer as he backed off his regular training regimen to nurse a body that went through last spring’s playoffs not fully healthy. The team asked him to go through a strenuous workout before tipoff first, to gauge his energy level. When Leonard said he felt fine, around 5:45 p.m. Thursday, he was added to the starting lineup.
“I didn’t play no type of contact basketball, no type of pickup at all” this summer, Leonard said. “I really wasn’t able to work out like I wanted to this summer but there’s always rust if you’re not playing.”
Leonard’s emotions did not come to forefront during his pregame introduction. He felt them as he arrived to the stadium.
“Thinking about what could happen or what’s going to happen and being able to play in the Staples Center, 45 minutes away from my home where I grew up, and I mean, it’s exciting,” he said. “But once I step on the floor it’s lock in time for me.”
It was apparent immediately.
Acting as a de facto point guard, Leonard found JaMychal Green for a corner three-pointer on his first drive. He hit Montrezl Harrell, whose 15 points were a team high, for a pocket pass off a pick-and-roll that led to a dunk. Center Ivica Zubac made a hook shot and dunk on consecutive possessions off Leonard assists.
Leonard is not expected to play in the team’s next exhibition, Sunday against a team from Australia, but Rivers said Leonard will “probably” play again Oct. 17.
Malik Beasley’s 16 points led Denver.
Usual starting guard Patrick Beverley did not play after suffering an undisclosed injury Wednesday. Neither did fellow wing Rodney McGruder, who is likely to miss Sunday’s game because of a high ankle sprain.
But Thursday wasn’t about who didn’t play. It was about the star who did.
“Tonight out there,” Zubac said of Leonard, “he looked amazing.”