Kawhi Leonard coolly collected his NBA championship ring on Wednesday night before an adoring Toronto crowd, then promptly delivered his old teammates a beat-down.
In his first regular-season game back in Canada since leaving the Raptors in free agency, the reigning NBA Finals MVP didn’t need to be spectacular to thump his old club. He scored 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting to help his Los Angeles Clippers to a 112-92 victory. It was the fourth loss in five games for Toronto’s struggling NBA champs.
Pascal Siakam had 24 points for the Raptors while Norman Powell had 22 as the Raptors slipped to 16-8. Kyle Lowry had six points on a sluggish 1-for-8 shooting night, while Serge Ibaka went scoreless on eight shots. As a team, the Raps shot a concerning 8-of-36 from three-point range.
“We’re in a period where we’re not playing very well here for about a week. It’s strange because last [Sunday] against Utah we may have played the best half of basketball we’ve ever seen in this building. So things can change quickly,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “We have to get back to who we are, which is very good defensively, ball movement and a good shooting team and we’ll be there.”
Although he appeared the picture of a player who has moved on, Leonard acknowledged after the game that he appreciated the moment with his championship teammates, and his new piece of jewellery.
“I got it after the game, sat in the locker room with it for a little bit and just admired it and remembered the memories and the hard work that went into it,” said Leonard in his post-game scrum.
In was nearly impossible for anyone in the city on Wednesday not to know Leonard was in town.
Toronto awoke to a new billboard above the Eaton Centre at Dundas Square, one put up by Leonard’s sponsor, New Balance. It featured Leonard, standing on a nondescript basketball court in a plain white T-shirt, his oversized hand palming a ball, topped by the message ‘Thank You Toronto.’
The Raptors posted one-day video billboards as well to celebrate Leonard. One, above Scotiabank Arena, pictured the champagne-soaked superstar in goggles, alongside the words ‘Fun Guy In Town.’ Another, overlooking the Gardiner Expressway, featured parade-day Leonard with the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the caption ‘Board Man Gets His Ring.’
Inside Scotiabank Arena for the morning shootaround, the gym floor was packed with media from across North America. When he eventually made it to the court, the crowd of reporters scrumming around him was so robust some had to climb onto the scorer’s table to get a glimpse of him. Among their questions for Leonard was how seriously he had considered re-signing with the Raptors before opting to leave for his hometown Clippers.
“I gave it a big consideration,” Leonard said. “I took my time, I didn’t hurry up and make a quick decision. I talked to the front office in deep detail. It was a hard choice to make.”
He was all business come game time. The megastar received his ring in a pre-game ceremony, speeding through quick hugs with a line of his former teammates. The final teammate was Lowry, who handed him the oversized gold and diamond-covered plum-sized ring. Leonard admired it for a fleeting moment and raised his arms to acknowledge the crowd’s ear-splitting ovation.
“We just laughed out there. I knew he was going to present me the ring before,” recalled Leonard later. “Memories went through our heads.”
Seconds after receiving the jewellery, he walked to the Clips’ bench, handed the ring off to a staffer, and put his game face on. Just like that, the final acknowledgement of his tenure as a Raptor was over.
In the first quarter, the Raps seemed to handle the emotions well, looking sharper than they had in several outings. OG Anunoby (who would have a 13-point night) chased Leonard around defensively. When the young Raptor was called for a foul, the crowd backed Anunoby by loudly groaning the call. The Raps led 32-27 as the first quarter ended.
Toronto was missing Fred VanVleet, who sat for a second straight game with a knee injury. They did get Patrick McCaw back – he eased into his first action in 17 games following arthroscopic knee surgery.
The Raps collapsed in the second quarter. Leonard had some flashy moments, reminding all of his dominance. He beat a Toronto triple team of Anunoby, Siakam and Serge Ibaka by sliding a savvy pass between them to a waiting Ivica Zubac down low, resulting in an easy bucket. He masterfully took Lowry off the dribble. He drained jumpers. He picked the point guard’s pocket for a crafty steal.
His Clippers outscored the Raps 37-14 in the second quarter as the home team floundered. Toronto trailed by a concerning 18 at half-time. It was obvious that the Raps aren’t getting Lowry and Ibaka at their best right now.
“I thought before they got injured they were both playing maybe the best they’d ever played,” said Nurse. “We’ve got to get them back in rhythm and shape or whatever it is and let them work their way out of this.”
The Raps roared back midway through the third quarter and cut the deficit to five. They manufactured a steal off Leonard that resulted in a monstrous Anunoby dunk. Siakam and Powell were scoring. The team was creating exciting blocks and steals, and the sleepy arena briefly regained its raucous vibe. But it didn’t last.
The Clips quickly built that lead right back up. Leonard added five rebounds, six assists and two steals to his final stat line. Former Raptor Lou Williams added 18 points, while Paul George had 13. The Clips improved to 19-7.
“I don’t think we were happy with what we’re doing defensively,” said Lowry. “We were giving up wide open threes.”
The Raps still have two games in this homestand – versus the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday and the Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday.