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Kawhi Leonard back on the court for Clippers’ preseason win against Blazers

Kawhi Leonard scored the first basket of the game, Paul George had 12 points and seven rebounds in just one half, and John Wall had five points and three assists as the Clippers defeated the Portland Trail Blazers, 102-97, in their second preseason game on Monday night in Seattle.

For all three players, it was a long-awaited chance to get back on the court after a variety of injuries and circumstances delayed their careers. It was also a glimpse of what could be for the Clippers this season.

From the moment he stepped onto the court, Leonard showed no signs of not having played in a game in 476 days – since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament on Jue 14, 2021. Leonard, whose first shot was a 25-foot 3-pointer 15 seconds into the game, finished with 11 points and four rebounds on 3-for-8 shooting in 16 minutes.

“For me, it felt great to be back on the court,” Leonard said during an on-court interview. “We wanted to come out here, play hard as a unit and get better.”

“Just being able to put all that hard work that I did throughout the, whatever, 14, 16 months, just being able to put that into test playing against NBA talent was good. Just being out there with the guys, talking, I missed it. It was a great experience for me.”

George, too, appeared sharp in his first game since suffering an elbow injury last season. The injury cost him the final three months of 2021-22, and he played in just 31 games.Lue had said he was going to play his starters limited minutes and all took seats after halftime at Climate Pledge Arena with the Clippers holding a 52-44 lead.

With the starters in warm-ups, the Clippers squandered their lead as the Blazers built a 78-71 lead after three quarters. Behind a strong effort by Amir Coffey (15 points) and Moussa Diabate (11 rebounds) the Clippers regained their footing and posted their second preseason victory.

Damian Lillard, who missed the final 47 games last season with his own injury issue, played into the second half and had 16 points in 23 minutes for Portland.

The teams played before a sold-out crowd in just the second preseason game between NBA teams in the Emerald City since the departure of the SuperSonics for Oklahoma City.

While there were Clippers and Blazers fans, the prominent color was overwhelmingly green and gold amid constant hope that some day the Sonics will return.

The royalty of Seattle basketball turned out, including Lenny Wilkens, Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Jamal Crawford, George Karl, Detlef Schrempf, Sam Perkins and many others connected to the city’s hoops history. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer grabbed the microphone before tipoff and thanked his hometown for turning out.

“I watched thousands of basketball games in Seattle – CYO, little kids, AAU, pro, college, you name it. So if this is a basketball city, damnit, let’s hear it,” Ballmer screamed right before tipoff, eliciting huge cheers from the crowd.

There was a warm-up act of sorts Friday when the Clippers routed Israeli team Maccabi Ra’anana in an exhibition, one though most of the Clippers’ core players – Leonard, George, Wall and Reggie Jackson among them – sat out that one.

The idea to have the Blazers and Clippers meet in Seattle was the result of a brainstorm between Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups. The close friends wanted their teams to meet in the preseason and Lue noted the owners for both teams are Seattle based: Ballmer and the Blazers’ Jody Allen.

“I haven’t been back since I played there in 2008, I think it was. So just to be able to go back there and you know, Mr. Ballmer and kind of see his offices and how he lives, and (Chauncey) to get a chance to see his owner, and then to be with my best friend, I thought it would be a great common ground,” Lue said ahead of the game.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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