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Clippers are delighted to be starting the season with their stars

The Clippers' Kawhi Leonard fouls the Lakers' Montrezl Harrell during an exhibition game Dec. 11, 2020.
The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard fouls the Lakers’ Montrezl Harrell, his former teammate, during Friday night’s exhibition game. The Lakers won 87-81.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The scene should have been innocuous, and yet considering how long it took to happen last season, it immediately stood out Friday inside Staples Center.

One year after it took seven weeks and 20 games, including the preseason, for the Clippers’ starring but injured duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to play their first game, they planted their feet Friday on opposite sides of the Lakers’ midcourt logo and awaited the tipoff of their preseason opener.

Coach Tyronn Lue has dubbed “adapt” the key word of his team’s season, and the first preseason matchup, an 87-81 Lakers victory, played against the eerie backdrop of music and public-address announcements rattling around inside an empty, 20,000-seat arena, reinforced how different this NBA campaign will feel even compared with the league’s restart this past summer in Florida.

But Leonard and George together on the court, consistently, after both were healthy enough to train since their season ended in embarrassing fashion in September? That’s a change the Clippers would be happy to see.

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The Lakers and Clippers opened the NBA preseason to a fan-free atmosphere at Staples Center that illuminated stark contrasts cast by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leonard had three points and seven rebounds and George scored a team-high 10 points and added two rebounds. Each played 14 minutes to begin a season in which Leonard said there would be “no playing around.”

“Obviously it’s a lot different this year,” Leonard said. “Last year we built continuity us going through the season, going through ups and downs. This year we’re playing in the first preseason game. We didn’t play last year in the first preseason game, either of us. We didn’t practice the first practice.

The Lakers' Wes Matthews battles the Clippers' Paul George, right, and is fouled by Nicolas Batum, back, on Dec. 11, 2020.
The Lakers’ Wes Matthews battles for the ball with the Clippers’ Paul George, right, and is fouled by Nicolas Batum, back, on Friday night.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

“So all that is buying into a better culture and us just being present, seeing us focus in that first practice or in these games, it just trickles down and these guys know it’s no playing around.”

While the Lakers rested four players, including LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two months to the day after winning the franchise’s 17th NBA title, Lue played his starters for two quarters out of an acknowledgment that last season, such time together was fleeting.

“With everyone healthy, we just want to take advantage of the time we have,” Lue said before tipoff. “Having a tough season last year, starting training camp with PG being out missing the first 11 games, Kawhi not being able to go through training camp. Coming into this season healthy, you know, our guys, our coaching staff, we just want to take advantage of every moment, every opportunity we have to play together and be on the floor to get that cohesiveness.”

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue sat forward Marcus Morris for Friday night’s exhibition against the Lakers because of ‘a little knee soreness.’

Lue has maintained the team’s chemistry issues stemmed from players’ lack of familiarity with one another on the court. In an interview with ESPN, former coach Doc Rivers begged to differ by saying that some players from the previous season’s roster “honestly didn’t accept at least one of the new guys. I thought they’d accept Kawhi. If they don’t accept everybody, then you usually don’t win.”

Lue is a believer that lineups with more continuity are a first step toward repairing last season’s issues. He has vowed stronger accountability, challenging Leonard and George to play up to their defensive potential.

“I think Kawhi and PG every night have to set the tone for us defensively along with Pat Beverley and they did it tonight on the defensive end,” Lue said.

Highlights from the Lakers’ 87-81 preseason win over the Clippers at Staples Center on Friday.

Even with George and Leonard on the court, Friday’s choppy first half — which featured 23 combined turnovers — wasn’t close to an indication of how the starting unit will play, and not only because forward Marcus Morris, who signed a four-year, $64-million contract last month, sat because of knee soreness, Lue said.

The rust showed after an offseason in which teammates could not gather for regular pickup games. George missed his first three shots and threw away a turnover before making his next two shots. Though healthy, Leonard never appeared to reach top speed, scoring his first point off a free throw with 8:27 to play before halftime. Overall, the Clippers committed 27 turnovers.

And yet as tempting as it would have been to dismiss Friday’s action as preseason filler, Lue said the three-game preseason would force the team to learn as much as it could entering the Dec. 22 season opener against the Lakers.

“We’re definitely going to move some guys around, some different pieces, some different positions, just kind of see how it works,” he said. “So right now we have three games to experiment, try different things. We want to try to do that as early as possible.”


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