LOS ANGELES — After LeBron James signed with the Lakers in July 2018, Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said that he wished James had stayed in Cleveland, because he believed Boston had a team capable of reaching the Finals, and he wanted to go through James to do it.
Last summer, there was another high-profile conference defection, as Kawhi Leonard signed with the Clippers after leading the Raptors to the NBA title. That cleared Boston’s path a bit more, but Brown on Wednesday preferred not to dwell on how the move affects him.
“I don’t have any comment toward that,” he said. “Congrats to Kawhi for winning a championship and doing what he went up to do and what was best for him. I’m not getting caught into saying any clickbait or anything.”
Brown said that he was happy for Leonard, a Los Angeles native, for making the best of his situation, both after he was traded to Toronto, and after he led the Raptors to their title.
“It was amazing, nothing short of it,” he said. “To get to a team and be there one year and win them a championship and then bounce? I thought that was dope. He did what he wanted to do. He didn’t owe anything to Toronto. He won them a championship and then it was time for him to go where he wanted to go.”
Sometimes free agent departures create some fan vitriol, but Toronto supporters mostly responded to Leonard’s decision positively and showed their appreciation for what he brought their city during his short time there.
“I’m glad, because that’s all it should have been,” Brown said. “They hadn’t won a championship. For him to get there and win in one year, after being traded to a team he hadn’t even asked to be traded to, it showed tremendous leadership and humility to win even though that may not be the place he wanted to be. So I tip my hat to Kawhi.”
There is no doubt that Leonard’s absence makes the Eastern Conference less formidable. But Celtics coach Brad Stevens, for one, said that he did not breathe a sigh of relief when he heard about the move.
“I don’t really think that way,” Stevens said. “I think when you’re here, you ultimately want to compete for the whole thing, so you’ve got to beat every team if you’re going to do that.”
Leonard returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing three games with a knee contusion, as he and Paul George took the floor together for the first time this season.
Marcus Smart was cleared to play against the Clippers despite the ankle sprain he suffered against the Suns on Monday. Smart twisted his right ankle with just over nine minutes left in the fourth quarter of that game and had to be helped off the court.
“Ankle’s feeling fine,” Smart said. “You know, a little soreness, but we tested it. Running, jumping, cutting, everything came out OK. It felt great.”
Last season Smart earned the first All-Defense first team honor of his career. The Clippers have their own bulldog, two-time all-defense guard Patrick Beverley, and Smart said he appreciates the way Beverley and the Clippers approach the game.
“My respect level for those type of guys and Pat Beverley himself is through the roof,” Smart said. “Just his story and everything he embodies in playing basketball and the way he plays, you know, the dude’s a little guy, but he backs down from nobody, and you’ve got to respect a guy like that.”
It did not take Celtics point guard Kemba Walker long to find his rhythm in his first year with the Celtics. Clippers coach Doc Rivers, for one, is not surprised.
“I thought the Kemba pick up was huge,” Rivers said. “You know, it’s a huge pick up, not only a great player but a great glue guy, as well. I don’t know if anybody in the league doesn’t like Kemba. I’m sure he has an enemy somewhere. He’ll have one in me if he makes too many shots today. But, no, it was exactly what they needed. It was a good pick up.”