Kawhi Leonard plays in a game that matters for the first time in 16 months when the Los Angeles Clippers battle the host Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

It will be the season debut for the Clippers. The Lakers opened with a 123-109 road loss against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday.

The Clippers went 4-0 against the Lakers last season and have won the past seven meetings.

Even though LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be on the floor for the Lakers, the presence of Leonard will be the focal point of the latest matchup between the crosstown rivals.

Leonard tore his right ACL on June 14, 2021 during Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Utah Jazz. He underwent surgery a month later and missed the 2021-22 campaign.

Leonard recently addressed the long period of rehabbing the knee.

“It’s been (15) months of me just trying to better myself and just focus on my overall body,” Leonard said, referring to the surgery. “I’m excited. I’m tired of going through these rehab workouts and listening to doctors and trainers for the most part.”

His return to health has made the Clippers a trendy pick to make a deep postseason run.

Los Angeles advanced to the 2021 Western Conference finals despite the loss of Leonard before falling to the Phoenix Suns in six games.

But without Leonard, the Clippers didn’t make the playoffs last season. Los Angeles lost twice in the play-in round — to the Minnesota Timberwolves and New Orleans Pelicans — to miss the postseason.

The Clippers only had Paul George on the floor for 31 games last season. The seven-time All-Star struggled with an elbow injury that sidelined him more than three months.

George is healthy to again team with Leonard, a five-time All-Star and two-time NBA Finals MVP. Point guard John Wall, a five-time All-Star, was added in the offseason and will come off the bench.

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue has decided to set the bar high.

“Our goal is to win a championship and so let the whole world know that,” Lue said.

The Lakers also feel they are title contenders despite the fact they also missed the playoffs last season.

James (56 games) and Davis (40) were plagued by injuries and Los Angeles finished 11th in the Western Conference.

The Lakers trailed by as many as 27 points in their opening defeat to the Warriors.

James recorded 31 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists while Davis contributed 27 points, six rebounds and four steals.

Russell Westbrook started despite hamstring soreness and had 19 points and 11 rebounds.

Los Angeles committed 22 turnovers.

“We had a lot of senseless turnovers but it’s Game 1,” new Lakers coach Darvin Ham said after the setback. “We have an opportunity to coach this team and tighten things up and get a little better.”

Davis has been injury-prone over his previous 10 seasons with the Pelicans (seven) and Lakers (three), averaging 60.4 games per season. The frequent absences prompted Hall of Famer Charles Barkley of TNT to pin a dubious nickname on him: “Street Clothes.”

Davis wasn’t pleased with the tag, but one of his season goals may have been fueled by Barkley’s comments.

“I only got one goal and that is to play in all 82 games,” Davis told the Los Angeles Times. “I want to be available as much as possible for my teammates and my coaches and give ourselves a chance to win every night.”

–Field Level Media