Kawhi Leonard had a tough night on the court Thursday, but basketball fans enthusiastically welcomed the former Toronto Raptors star back to Canada all the same.
Leonard went five-for-19 from the floor as his L.A. Clippers were beaten 102-87 by the Dallas Mavericks in a pre-season game in Vancouver.
Cheers echoed around Rogers Arena as Leonard led the Clippers on to the court for warm ups and fans got loud each time he hit a shot.
The 28-year-old had 13 points, three rebounds and two assists during his 22:29 on the hardwood, but it was Montrezl Harrell who was the Clippers’ No. 1 scorer, registering 14 points.
Kristaps Porzingis led Dallas with 18 points. He also collected 13 rebounds and registered a single assist.
The Mavericks dominated the game early, putting away the first basket and never letting go of the lead.
Where the Clippers struggled to sink shots, the Mavs made good on 38.5 per cent of their field goal attempts and 85 per cent of their shots from the line.
Dallas also put up some big plays, including a first quarter dunk by big man Boban Marjanovic that drew awe from the sell-out crowd of 17,204.
Before tipoff, Canadians Dwight Powell and Mfiondu Kabengele stood at centre court and thanked fans for coming out.
Powell, a Toronto native, is in his fifth year with the Mavericks but did not play Thursday due to a left hamstring strain.
The Clippers picked Kabengele, who hails from Burlington, Ont., 27th overall in this year’s draft. He came on late in the fourth quarter for L.A., putting up a solid block in the game’s final seconds.
Thursday marked Leonard’s return to Vancouver where he took part in his first and only training camp with the Raptors last year.
He went on to lead the team to their first NBA championship, averaging 30.5 points per game in a playoff run which generated huge television ratings across Canada.
Leonard then opted to join his hometown Clippers in free agency, reportedly agreeing to a three-year, US$103-million contract.
The negotiation period attracted plenty of attention. One television network even used a helicopter to film a vehicle that reportedly had Leonard inside after he flew to Toronto to meet with the Raptors.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers knew Canadian fans were looking forward to seeing Leonard live on Thursday.
“They should be excited,” the coach said. “He did something very special for this country. So that’ll be a lot of fun for him, for sure.”
Outside the arena on Thursday, some fans used the game as an opportunity to send the NBA a message.
A group of about 10 people wearing various face masks expressed their displeasure with how the league has handled recent controversy around a tweet Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted voicing support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the league values freedom of expression, but others, including L.A. Lakers star LeBron James, have criticized Morey for his now-deleted post.
On Thursday, protesters in Vancouver carried signs reading “#StandWithHongKong” and “NBA bowed to totalitarian China. We won’t.”
Meanwhile, a separate and slightly larger group rallied in the same area, calling for the league to bring a team back to Vancouver.
The city was home to the Grizzlies from 1995 to 2001, when the franchise moved to Memphis.
“Grizzlies are indigenous to Vancouver,” read one sign outside Rogers Arena on Thursday.
“NBA please come back!” read another.
Chants of “We want Grizzlies!” also broke out through the arena during the fourth quarter.