For the most part, Kawhi Leonard’s career highlights are easy to pick out.
There was his playoff-best 45 points for the Toronto Raptors in the opener of a second-round series with Philadelphia last season. There was his 41 points and the game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 7 of that series. And there was Game 5 of the 2014 NBA Finals, when as a member of the San Antonio Spurs he scored 22 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and claimed the first of two career Finals MVP honors.
And then there is his 31st career game.
Leonard scored four points, with three rebounds and three assists, in 17 minutes off the bench for San Antonio in a road win against the Clippers. Leonard remembers that performance on Feb. 18, 2012, as vividly as he does any Finals appearance.
For the kid from Moreno Valley, it isn’t so much his performance, but the Staples Center setting.
“My first time playing there, it was exciting,” Leonard said. “Forty-five minutes from my hometown, being able to see family for the first time since I’ve been drafted in a while, it was exciting.”
Since signing with the Clippers as a free agent in July, Leonard can now call Staples Center home.
And he’s the not the only superstar who can say that.
The regular-season opener Tuesday between the Lakers and Clippers begins a season unlike any other since the franchises began occupying the same city, in 1984. Both teams have been considered championship contenders at various points since, but never at the same time. With LeBron James and Anthony Davis sharing the Lakers locker room a few doors down from where Leonard, Paul George and the Clippers prepare, that has now changed.
“I don’t really rank my games, haven’t thought about where everything ranks,” said Davis, a national champion at Kentucky who has also played in the Olympics. “But [Tuesday is] definitely gonna be up there, just as far with the team that I have, the teammates, just the level of competition that’s gonna be out there. And plus, this is our first game. It’s gonna be real fun.”
After months of waiting, and plenty of public discussion about the possibility of playing together, Davis and James finally have their chance to play side-by-side in a counting NBA game. Acting as a de facto point guard, James will orchestrate a new offense installed by coach Frank Vogel all while a defense led by Leonard — named the top defender in the NBA in a survey of general managers — attempts to stop the pick-and-roll potential between the Lakers’ stars.
“[James] is one of the great passers in the history of the game and people don’t talk about it enough,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He gets compared to Michael [Jordan] and I’ve never agreed with that. I’ve always said Magic [Johnson]. He’s far more Magic than any player that’s ever played the game.”
Vogel said Davis’ and James’ chemistry on the court “has looked great at times and still has a way to go at times. That’s to be expected with two players of that magnitude playing with each other for the first time.”
The Lakers, meanwhile, must find an answer for one of the league’s deepest rosters. Four months removed from winning a title in Toronto, Leonard will lead the Clippers’ starters. Off the bench, three-time Sixth Man winner Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell averaged 36.6 points per game last season.
Lakers guard Danny Green, who played with Leonard in San Antonio and Toronto for the last eight seasons, said facing his old teammate “will be a little strange.”
Had two decisions changed last spring and summer, this matchup could have looked much different. Former Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, who won a title in Cleveland with James in 2016, was a front-runner to land the Lakers job before talks broke down. Eventually, Vogel was hired and Lue, in August, joined the Clippers’ bench as an assistant to his longtime friend, Rivers.
“Anybody that says when you play the Lakers or you play Golden State, that it doesn’t matter, they’re lying.”
The Lakers also courted Leonard aggressively in free agency, but rather than create a team loaded with three superstars, Leonard told the Clippers he wanted to play with George, then signed once they secured the All-Star in a trade with Oklahoma City.
“They’re gonna want to beat us, because everybody’s trying to force this rivalry thing to happen,” Green said. “But we’re not worried about them, we’re worried about ourselves and every other team in the West.”
George will not play Tuesday, nor is he expected to debut as a Clipper until sometime next month, as he continues to heal his surgically repaired shoulders. Both rosters remain far from their potential. Players and coaches from each side took turns in previous days attempting to dampen any talk of a rivalry.
“Anybody that says when you play the Lakers or you play Golden State, that it doesn’t matter, they’re lying,” Rivers said. “Having said that, it’s one game.”
Still, Game 579 of Leonard’s career could be one to remember as a window into a matchup that oddsmakers believe could be repeated in the playoffs.
“It’s like the first day of school,” James said. “The first day of school, going back to school, laying your clothes out the night before. Just that excitement of getting the thing back going.”
Up next for Clippers: vs. Lakers
When: 7:30 p.m., Tuesday.
On the air: TV: TNT; Radio: 570, 710.
Update: Clippers guard Rodney McGruder has been listed as out by the team as he continues to recover from an ankle injury. Leonard will not be under a minutes restriction, Rivers said. For the Lakers, guard Rajon Rondo (calf injury) is questionable, Alex Caruso is probable (bruised pelvis) and Quinn Cook (calf injury) is cleared to play. … The Clippers filled their 15th and final roster spot Monday by signing guard Derrick Walton Jr. to a one-year, non-guaranteed deal, a person with knowledge of the contract told The Los Angeles Times. The 6-foot-1 Walton averaged 7.0 points, 3.0 assists, 1.6 rebounds and 1.4 turnovers while playing in all five Clippers preseason games.