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Los Angeles Clippers

What to watch for as Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers host DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

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Kawhi Leonard, DeMar DeRozan [NBA Getty Images]

There are only three games of NBA action this Thursday, but one of those three contests is between two promising Western Conference teams looking to make a statement.

The LA Clippers captured everyone's attention when they handled the Los Angeles Lakers on Opening Night, followed by a blowout win over the Golden State Warriors. They looked as good as advertised all offseason, and that's without All-Star forward Paul George.

The Clippers have gone 1-2 since then with the latest loss coming against the Utah Jazz without All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, who was designated with "load management" on the first game of a back-to-back ahead of tonight's game against the San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs stand in with a perfect 3-0 record, joining the Philadelphia 76ers as the only remaining teams in the NBA without a loss. San Antonio will be put to the test on the road against a team that many believe to be the favourite to win the Western Conference.

Here are four things to watch for in this battle:

Kawhi coming off of a "load management" game

Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors essentially invented the official listing of "load management" last year, as the superstar only played in 60 games. It clearly paid off, as Leonard carried the Raptors to their first NBA championship in franchise history, so it's no surprise the Clippers would take a similar approach.

Leonard had his first "load management" game of the season against the Jazz on Wednesday, so he'll be fresh and ready to go to try and knock off his former team the Spurs.

In the 22 games Kawhi missed due to load management last season, the Raptors stayed afloat going 17-5. The Clippers fell to the Jazz by a decisive margin, dropping to 0-1.

In the 16 games following "load management" last year, Leonard led Toronto to a 12-4 record. He averaged an impressive 24.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 48.9% from the field and 38.3% from 3-point land in those contests.

Leonard has been terrific in the four games he's played for the Clippers this season, posting 27.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. They'll need their superstar to continue to compete at that high level in meantime until Paul George returns from his shoulder injury, even if it means missing games here-and-there to keep him fresh.

DeRozan's offensive game

When you look at DeMar DeRozan's numbers from this season, you'll see he's averaging 22.0 points per game on 48.0% shooting from the field - right on par with what he did in his first season in San Antonio last year.

But there's one area of his game that took a big step forward last season and has not been carried over to this season - his passing. In his first season with the Spurs, DeRozan's playmaking made a solid jump averaging a career-high 6.2 assists per game. It's one aspect of his game that has improved slowly but surely throughout his career but has taken a step back through three games this season, averaging 2.3 assists per game.

In looking for reasons as to why he has regressed in this area, the return of DeJounte Murray and his team-leading 6.0 assists per game can only take so much of the blame when DeRozan's usage percentage is nearly identical to last season.

But there is one sign that points directly to the drop in his assists average.

According to NBA stats, DeRozan averaged 18.7 drives per game last season, second-most in the league behind James Harden. He shot 53.5% averaging 10.5 points and 2.3 assists per game on drives to the hoop. His 2.3 assists per game on drives to the hoop were third-most in the NBA, trailing only Russell Westbrook and Trae Young.

This season DeRozan is averaging 20.3 drives per game, second-most in the league behind Harden, again. He's shooting 47.8% averaging 12.0 points per game on drives, but his assists average is down to 0.3 per game when he's going to the rim. That's among the worst in the league for players averaging double-digit drives per game, placing him tied for second-to-last with Andrew Wiggins (0.3 assists per game on drives) and just above C.J. McCollum (0.2 assists per game on drives).

In short, DeRozan has stopped looking to pass when he's going to the rim and his assist numbers have taken a big hit because of it. It's a small sample size of only three games so there's plenty of time for him to get back to where he was last season, but it's something to keep an eye on in this contest.

Kawhi's passing

On the other hand, Kawhi Leonard has unlocked that very same aspect of his game in a way that we've never seen him before.

Leonard's passing has been jaw-dropping this season compared to any other year of his career. It's clear that this is something he focused on this offseason and we've already seen it developed through four games.

3.5 assists per game in 2016-17 with the Spurs is the most that Leonard has averaged in a season in his career. So far this season, he's more than doubled that, averaging 7.5 assists per game.

Last season with the Raptors, Leonard tallied over eight assists in a game zero times in the regular season and just once in the playoffs in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals where he had a career-high nine assists.

In his second game with the Clippers, he matched that career-high with nine assists in a win over the Warriors. The very next game, he dished out a new career-high of 10 assists in a loss to the Suns.

Leonard has yet to have a game where he posts less than five assists, and a lot of that can be attributed to the way head coach Doc Rivers is using him.

According to NBA stats, Kawhi averaged 6.3 pick-and-roll possessions per game with the Raptors last season. So far this season, he's already up to 10.5 pick-and-roll possessions per game and his passing has evolved massively in those situations.

Part of that is Montrezl Harrell is a very different pick-and-roll partner than Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka, as Harrell is one of the best in the league at diving to the rim for a bucket after setting a solid screen.

Aside from that, Leonard is getting more creative with his passes in those instances. In particular, he's threading the needle with crafty bounce passes and doing a better job of using his gravity as one of the best scorers in the league to create open looks for his teammates.

Kawhi is arguably the best player in the league and that was before he unlocked this skillset. If Leonard can continue to average north of five assists per game, opposing defences are in trouble in trying to contain this offensive force.

Can the Spurs stay undefeated?

The Spurs are one of two teams - along with the Philadelphia 76ers (4-0) - to still have an unblemished record.

They had a close win over the New York Knicks on opening night and defeated the Washington Wizards on a buzzer-beating layup from DeMar DeRozan for their first two victories of the season. Those aren't exactly victories to write home about, but a wins a win. They nearly let Damian Lillard single-handedly pull off a comeback win in their last game, but again, held off a late push to advance to 3-0 on the season.

When you look at their team stats, it's interesting to think this team hasn't lost a game yet - they rank dead last in rebounds, assists, steals and points per game. But when you look at what they're doing to opposing teams, it all starts to make sense.

The Spurs rank first in opposing points, assists, rebounds, free throw attempts, 3-point attempts and field goal attempts per game.

They're also ranked second in team field goal percentage, turnovers per game and fouls per game.

All this really means is that San Antonio is forcing teams to play to their pace. They're locked in on the defensive end and defend without fouling. They take the shots they're comfortable taking and convert them at nearly the highest rate in the league.

The Spurs rarely ever beat themselves, so the Clippers are going to have to bring their A-game if they're going to knock off one of the league's last undefeated teams.

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