So much changed after Kawhi Leonard crashed to the Oracle Arena floor on May 14, 2017.
The San Antonio Spurs had a 23-point lead on the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals when Leonard departed with 26 points, poised to take away home-court advantage in the series between teams who won more than 60 games.
Leonard injured his ankle when he landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot after taking a jump shot, and things were never the same again for the Spurs or Leonard. The Spurs couldn’t hold on to win that game or any other in the series without their All-Star forward, whose ankle injury would be followed by a lingering thigh injury that would limit him to just nine games the following season and strain relations between the team and player. Leonard was ultimately granted his desire to leave San Antonio when he was traded to Toronto in the off-season.
If Leonard doesn’t go down, maybe the Spurs win that game, maybe the series and maybe another championship. Maybe Leonard wouldn’t have wanted to leave.
“Regardless of the fact, would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, we’re here now,” said Danny Green, who was traded to Toronto with Leonard. “And obviously it would have been nice if things went differently then and we would have continued to play and maybe had something special happen then, but we’re here now so we want to try to make some good things happen now.”
Leonard is set to play at Oracle Arena for the first time since his injury on Wednesday, again looking like the player whose team might be the biggest threat to the Warriors.
It’s a rematch of perhaps the game of the season and another potential NBA Finals preview. Leonard scored 37 points on Nov. 29 in Toronto, when the Raptors overcame a season-high 51 points from Kevin Durant to win 131-128 in overtime. Toronto has the NBA’s best record, but this time would have to beat the Warriors with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, who were injured in the first matchup.
Leonard dealt with injuries for a long time, but he appears just about back to where he was at his peak. Coach Nick Nurse has noticed how Leonard is jumping higher on his dunks and not coming up short on his 3-pointers, and the Raptors are close to eliminating all the minutes restrictions that were in place when the season started.
“I think there’s more to come,” Nurse said.