LOS ANGELES — Kawhi Leonard’s long-awaited Clippers debut began with Lakers fans booing his introduction and interrupting his pregame message thanking the fans in L.A. Once the game tipped off, he got off to a slow start.
By the time his first home game at Staples Center was over, though, Leonard made all the noise that mattered. After starting with two missed shots and two turnovers, Leonard buried seven straight baskets at one point in the first half. He scored 15 of his 30 points during that momentum-turning tear to help lead the Clippers to a 112-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers.
“He talks with his game,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of Leonard, who also had 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block. “I think that’s the way it should be.”
Los Angeles felt very much like the epicenter of the NBA on Tuesday night with both the Lakers and Clippers built to contend for a title this season. Anthony Davis made his Lakers debut alongside LeBron James, and the Clippers unveiled Leonard after years of planning and building toward this past summer that saw the team sign Leonard and trade for Paul George.
Lakers fans, though, tried to rain on the Clippers’ night as Staples Center sounded like a Lakers home game at times. When the lights went down for the Clippers’ pregame hype video, Lakers fans booed loudly. They did the same when the Clippers announced their starting lineup with Leonard going last. And when Leonard stood on the court and thanked fans for coming to start off the season, Lakers faithful tried to boo the man who picked the Clippers over the Lakers in free agency.
Leonard paused at one point before talking louder into the microphone.
“I just heard a loud noise,” Leonard said of the moment he talked into the microphone before the game. “I was just trying to be as loud as I can. I wasn’t sure if people, the Clipper fans were being loud or if it was the Laker fans. I didn’t pay attention to it too much. I was just trying to let the fans know the appreciation we have for them for coming out tonight.”
Leonard missed his first two shots, and the Lakers opened the game with a 13-2 lead. But with 59 seconds left in the first quarter, Leonard hit a 9-foot turnaround fadeaway shot. Leonard would hit seven straight shots, many coming on an array of contested midrange shots and pull-ups. The Clippers took an eight-point lead into the half as the only person who could stop Leonard during the second quarter was Rivers, who took his star out midway through the second quarter, following his plan of how he’s going to play and sub the forward.
“Just made shots pretty much,” Leonard said. “I felt like I got to my spots early, missed some little chippies but started making shots. That’s what happens.”
In the fourth quarter, Leonard scored nine points, including 7 of 9 at the free throw line. He also helped the Clippers hold James and Davis to a combined 1-for-6 shooting in the fourth.
Leonard says the Clippers still have a long way to go as they continue to learn one another’s tendencies and wait for George to return from surgeries on both of his shoulders. But like the Lakers did, the Clippers saw and felt just how focused and locked in Leonard can get.
“He was intense,” Rivers said. “You could feel that. You could feel the intensity. There’s no doubt about that. I think [assistant coach] Ty Lue said, ‘Look at him at the jump-ball circle,’ where [everybody] was moving around and doing all their gestures, and Kawhi was just standing there. You could just see, he was like, ‘Throw the ball up. Let’s get this on.’ Ty was right.”