Clippers rest Kawhi Leonard in final preseason game

ONTARIO >> Coach Tyronn Lue prefers not to think about it. Doesn’t want to consider a lineup without Kawhi Leonard.

“I want him out there,” Lue said Wednesday at Toyota Arena. “We got some versatile guys we can play. You got PG (Paul George), Norm (Powell), Marcus (Morris Sr.) RoCo (Robert Covington), Nico (Nicolas Batum). You can throw T. (Terance) Mann in that mix. You know, you got a lot of different ways you can play. So, we got different versions of that lineup.

“But I’d rather have Kawhi in it.”

The Clippers coach knows there are going to be nights when Leonard isn’t available, such as on the second night of back-to-backs. It’s not ideal, but realistic.

Leonard is coming back from having surgery to repair a torn right anterior cruciate ligament that sidelined him last season. Lue isn’t going to take risks; he even kept Leonard out of Wednesday’s final preseason game against Denver as a precaution.

“He’s got to be mad at us,” Lue said. “We’ve got to make sure we protect him from himself as well as John (Wall). I know those guys are big-time competitors and they want to play every night and they want to play a lot of minutes.

“But reality is we’ve got to be smart about it and they understand that.”

Leonard has been vocal during the preseason about his eagerness to return to his 2021 form that many had said was his best basketball. He made his return to the court in the Clippers’ preseason game against Portland and played again against Minnesota on Sunday. He had a combined 19 points, four assists, two steals and four rebounds in the two contests.

“Yeah, I mean I missed a whole year missing basketball, went down in one of the worst ways, in a playoff run. Just don’t want to take anything for granted, like I always say, and just trying to live in that moment and bring a sense of energy for the team,” Leonard said after the Minnesota game.

“You just miss it; you know what I mean? That’s some of the reason I don’t play pickup in the offseason. The grind is so heavy during the year, it’s like I need to find a way to miss playing basketball again.”

With Leonard getting the night off, Lue inserted Reggie Jackson and Powell into the starting lineup Wednesday, along with George, Morris Sr. and Zubac.

Lue went to the bench at roughly the five-minute mark of the first quarter, tapping Wall as a replacement for Jackson. Wall immediately made his presence known when he found Zubac under the basket for a dunk. He scored four points and had another assist before the quarter ended and eight points at halftime.

The rest of the starters took seats moments later, but returned early in the second quarter as the reserves allowed the Nuggets to build a 37-29 lead despite two-time MVA Nikola Jokic on the bench with three fouls.

Wall, Morris and George returned to the court, giving Lue a look at small lineup, something he has talked about this preseason and worked on in Tuesday’s practice. Powell had 22 points by halftime, while Morris had 13 points and George two points and six rebounds.

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But it wasn’t enough as the Clippers trailed 74-66 at the half, revealing several areas the team needs tofocus on over the next seven days.

With just a week before the season-opener, Lue said the Clippers will treat the seven days as a mini-camp with two game-like scrimmages. He said the break also will give the players time to work out any health issues.

“Just keep working and keep preparing and like I said we’ve had a great camp so far,” Lue said. “All the guys have really bought in, guys have been great every single day. I know it gets redundant when you’ve got veterans on the team, and you keep doing the same thing so just try to keep those guys engaged but they’ve been doing a great job with it.”