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Kawhi Leonard’s return and John Wall’s debut provides enduring moment for Clippers

Monday’s preseason exhibition here between the Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers will never count toward official statistics, but tell that to the Clippers, who watched the return of former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and former All-Star point guard John Wall after each endured lengthy NBA absences that it didn’t count for something.

And tell that, too, to the more than 18,000 who watched the return of NBA basketball in the shadow of the Space Needle for only the second time in the 14 years after the SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, who built his Microsoft fortune and his diehard basketball fandom here, grabbed a microphone before tipoff at the center of Climate Pledge Arena’s court and declared, at the top of his decibel range that “this is a basketball city, dammit!”

It could take years to know whether Seattle receives another NBA team, though Jamal Crawford, the Seattle-raised longtime NBA player and former Clippers star reserve, is among those optimistic that this arena, which is designed for NBA basketball, can help lure a franchise. Leonard and Wall, meanwhile, offered much quicker answers on the status of their comebacks. After lulling Portland center Jusuf Nurkic with a side-to-side dribble, Leonard made his first shot, a three-pointer, only 15 seconds into the first quarter — his first basket since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the second round of the postseason in June 2021.

Leonard, who had not played five-on-five until last week’s start of training camp, said he missed being on the floor.

“It was funny because [Paul George] asked me if I had the [nervous] bubbles before the game, like the stomach, I am like, nah,” said Leonard, who scored 11 points in 16 first-half minutes of work, while also setting up teammates for open shots because of the attention drawn by his drives.

“There might be a little wing in there floating around. I felt the same way as if I approached any other game today. I felt like I was mentally prepared. I felt like the training staff, the coaches, trainers, doctors, they all did a great job of getting me to this point. It is not over yet. It is still going to be a process for me to get better. I’m just enjoying it.”

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer welcomes fans to Monday’s preseason game between the Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers in Seattle.

(John Froschauer / Associated Press)

And Wall, who came off the bench in his first game against NBA competition since April 2021, still displayed the burst to get to the paint and leave defenders at the three-point arc while looking for passes for a big man, just as the former No. 1 overall pick did at the height of his powers in Washington.

“Just for him and Kawhi both, all the hard work they did to get back to this position to get back on stage, it just shows you the dedication they have and all the hard work they put in,” coach Tyronn Lue said before tipoff. “It’s going to be the first step of a long journey, we understand that.”

There was so much pageantry surrounding this game that at first the action on court fell into the backdrop, with former Sonics players Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Perkins and Detlef Schrempf receiving a chorus of cheers when they stood together during a first-half break in play. Lenny Wilkens, the coach of Seattle’s lone NBA title, received a standing ovation during the first quarter. Macklemore, the Seattle-raised rapper, told fans before tipoff this night was to show “the world” that Seattle needs an NBA team.

What they saw instead was a Clippers team that Portland coach Chauncey Billups said had all the elements of a championship contender and whose first defensive effort together drew praise from Lue. George scored 12 points with seven rebounds in 16 minutes in a half of work.

Wall made one of his four shots, with three assists and two turnovers. Had it been a regular-season game, Wall said he would have been in “attack mode,” but he wanted to work in how to get other second-unit teammates Norman Powell and Luke Kennard their shots. But this was not another game, not after he did not play last season after a mutual agreement with the Houston Rockets to sit out the team’s rebuild.

“When I went to the tunnel to start warming up and stuff it was just like starting to hit me,” Wall said.

The only starting job up for competition with two preseason games remaining is point guard. Reggie Jackson started Monday but Wall will get a chance to play with starters in their next exhibition Sunday. With Marcus Morris Sr. absent for the birth of a child, Nicolas Batum started at power forward in his place but the starting job belongs to Morris, Lue said before tipoff, with Batum his backup.

Lue experimented with lineups as expected, including a smaller look with Wall, Leonard, Norman Powell, George and Ivica Zubac that opened the second quarter. Not yet seen was an all-wings lineup of Leonard, George, Morris, Batum and Robert Covington that Lue said he wants. Powell had declared his goal to be the starting shooting guard but has been told by Lue to embrace the role of sixth man. He made one of his 11 shots.

“Sixth man of the year, coming in and scoring the basketball, no backup player should be able to guard him in any unit,” Lue said.

Terance Mann (rolled ankle), Jason Preston (groin) did not dress because of injuries that Lue did not appear concerned about. Similarly, Lue said that Kennard, who rolled his ankle during the first half, would be OK.

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