Kawhi Leonard challenges Clippers to improve on offense. ‘We still don’t know plays’

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, looks past Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

With two weeks left until the regular season, the Clippers took “another step in the right direction for us defensively” Tuesday in a preseason victory against Utah, coach Tyronn Lue said.

When it comes to staying healthy and knowing their offense, they remain firmly a work in progress.

“We’re doing a good job of playing hard, I feel like we’re bringing that intense energy on the defensive end, and that’s all you can ask for, especially in a preseason game,” star Kawhi Leonard told The Times. “I think guys are getting after it.

“Downside of it is, we still don’t know plays. Some of the guys don’t know the plays so when we get back to practice we really got to focus on that. We can’t have the same, you know, downfall that we did last year. We have to start it now and be able to build and adjust once we get down into April.”

Clippers center Ivica Zubac stretches out to block a shot by Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen

The Clippers beat the Jazz 103-98 at Climate Pledge Arena despite missing Ivica Zubac, who left during the first quarter with back spasms. He joined Marcus Morris Sr. (left groin strain), Norman Powell (right groin strain) and Brandon Boston Jr. (knee contusion), who have all been out since Saturday.

The injuries are not “too serious,” Lue said, adding he hoped Zubac, the starting center, could be healthy in the coming days. For a team whose past three seasons have been derailed by injuries to stars Leonard or Paul George, the Clippers felt their most important offseason development was that their 21-man roster arrived to training camp healthy. Internally, there is a belief a healthy Clippers team can still compete for an NBA championship.

“Better now than later,” Lue said of the streak of injuries to hit the team.

In a similar sense, the Clippers left Seattle hoping their spotty offensive execution will be in a better place when their regular season starts on Oct. 25. The Clippers shot 39% during Sunday’s preseason opening loss to Utah, and 38% on Tuesday, but generally have found open shots. But the process leading to those shots has not been as smooth as perhaps expected considering 13 players returned from last season.

Read more: Clippers-Jazz takeaways: Tyronn Lue’s new ‘Day 1’ urgency plan showing returns

Lue said he has oriented the team’s practices around defense and was impressed that the Clippers held Utah, a team Lue praised for coach Will Hardy’s offensive ingenuity, to 39 first-half points Tuesday despite not yet installing the Clippers’ defensive blitz packages. He spoke approvingly of the way Leonard and George had given Utah’s offensive players little space to operate, and highlighted the active hands of Robert Covington, the little-used forward who had four blocks and two steals in a start.

“Now offensively, we got to start catching up offensively, which, we will do that,” Lue said.

While noting that Leonard has been noticeably “laughing and joking a lot more” during this training camp than in previous years, Lue added that Leonard has also “been the voice that kind of leads the charge” when on the court. On Tuesday, that meant stepping into a huddle and speaking up.

“I know he had some discussions in timeout, we kind of ran or five plays wrong and he came to the bench and kind of got on the guys about not executing, not knowing the plays,” Lue said.

Read more: Clippers training camp gets serious: ‘Toughest one for sure’

The Clippers have two preseason games remaining, against Denver on Oct. 17 and Oct. 19. Leonard said he wants to see better execution in the limited game reps they have left before the real season begins.

“We got to make sure we hold each other accountable at knowing the plays,” Leonard said. “T. Lue is doing a great job of letting us rep it out but it’s on us to know what the hell we’re doing on the floor. I really want to see that before the season starts.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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