Kawhi Leonard will have “no limits,” Doc Rivers says, as Clippers chase championship
His beard a little longer, his head covered by a blue “L.A.” hat, Clippers star Kawhi Leonard sat in front of a webcam and related how returning to play after the most unusual break in NBA history felt like gearing up following any other offseason.
Time off would be followed by light workouts, practices, preseason games and, eventually, the real thing.
But that comparison wasn’t quite right, and not only because of the unprecedented circumstances surrounding the NBA‘s attempted restart amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike September’s pick-up games and October’s Hawaiian training camp, which Leonard and Paul George could only watch from the sideline as they recovered from injuries, both All-Stars have declared themselves healthy since arriving in Orlando, Fla., in recent days.
At a time when teams are trying to get back to speed as quickly as possible, and protecting the health of star players never has been more precarious, any head start represents a boost.
“I feel good,” Leonard said Monday, the first time he spoke to reporters since March. “Was able to work out, get strong and prepare for this moment now that we’re in. It’s about to be the first practice today, so I’m excited.”
Coach Doc Rivers and star Lou Williams say Clippers are ready for the NBA restart after deciding to pursue a title and call for social reforms.
One of the foremost adherents to the “load management” strategy, Leonard has not played games on consecutive days since 2017 and had his minutes limited for long stretches this season while carefully monitoring what the NBA called an ongoing injury to his left patella tendon.
Asked whether Leonard’s participation would be limited in the lead-up to the postseason, coach Doc Rivers said there were “no limits” on the player who has averaged 26.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists this season.
“Kawhi is healthy for the most part,” Rivers said. “That still doesn’t mean that we don’t want to maintain him and get him through the first eight games and get ready for the playoffs. We want to be smart about this. Not just for Kawhi, it’s with everybody.”
The Clippers won seven of their last eight games to move into second place in the Western Conference before the NBA shut down. Leonard called it “difficult” during the hiatus to maintain the rhythm the roster had.
Thanks to a lively group chat, however, staying connected to his teammates was easy. In late May, those conversations began touching on the Black Lives Matter movement that erupted following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“What’s happened, what everybody has been seeing on the news, it’s been like [that] for me,” Leonard said. “I’ve been seeing those situations, so it’s nothing new to me, and I’m still going to continue to help and educate people as well as my teammates. It doesn’t matter if we have a statement on the back of our jersey, it’s about doing the work.”
Teammate Rodney McGruder said he will wear “peace” on the back of his jersey, one of 29 statements the NBA and the players’ union approved. More prominent Monday was the smile McGruder wore when describing the atmosphere as more Clippers have arrived and cleared quarantine in recent days.
Rockets’ Russell Westbrook tests positive for coronavirus and did not travel with the team to Orlando, Fla., in preparation for the NBA’s restart.
“The bubble has been — it’s unique, but it’s been pretty exciting though, for us,” McGruder said. “Just to be together and build something right now.”
In that sense, nothing has changed since the team gathered for the first time at the end of the offseason in September. Then as now, the Clippers say their focus is on building a title team.
Leonard, a two-time champion, dismissed the idea that an asterisk would be applied to the winner of the 2020 title.
“It’s not like a regular NBA season, nobody’s life is pretty much how they planned it to be at this point with the pandemic, so I mean, you take it for what it is,” Leonard said. “Everybody is happy that a championship will be crowned this year, and if that’s the 2020 championship, then we want it.”
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