Kawhi Leonard may have just played one season for the Toronto Raptors, having left the team in free agency following a tumultuous two-week rumour-filled stretch in the summer of 2019.
But it’s clear that the 2018-19 season — the magical, NBA championship-winning season — still has a major impact on one of the league’s biggest stars.
“It’s always great memories coming in this arena,” Leonard told reporters postgame following his Los Angeles Clippers’ 124-113 win last night at Scotiabank Arena.
It was Leonard’s first visit to the city as an opposing player in over three years, having last made the trip on December 11, 2019.
Injuries, a pandemic, and a season where the Raptors played their home games in Tampa, Florida, have prevented Leonard from his “annual visit” actually being as such.
And just like he did in Toronto, Leonard hasn’t been playing in back-to-back games, making it a question mark if he’d even suit up on the evening.
Most times, Leonard has opted to play night one of a back-to-back, while sitting out the second night.
But instead, Leonard chose to sit in Detroit a night prior, giving Raptors fans the opportunity to see him at home.
“I’d rather give the fans in Toronto a chance to see me play again. That was a part of my decision,” Leonard said about why he opted to play against the Raptors instead of the Pistons.
There was a small ovation for Leonard, but a louder one for teammate Norman Powell, who received a tribute video in his first game back as an opposing player.
What did Kawhi think of playing the Raptors?
In the three years since Leonard left the Raptors, just four players from that team remain: Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Chris Boucher, and O.G. Anunoby.
Of course, Nick Nurse and various members of the coaching and management staff have remained largely the same.
And while — like Anunoby — Leonard may have garnered a bit of a reputation for awkward, short interview answers, he had plenty to say about his former team.
Nurse’s tactics limited Leonard to 15 points and seven rebounds, a far cry from his 24.9 points per game average through three seasons with the Clippers.
“He sees the game different, [using] using different schemes,” Leonard said about what he learned from playing for Nurse. “He’s able to adjust. He wants to win. And that’s how you go for a coach that is very competitive. You know, watching film showing you things that you could do better challenging each and every game.”
And as for actually facing off against Nurse?
“He sent guys on every possession, isos, post-ups, pick-and-rolls,” Leonard said. “He really didn’t want me to play [well]. The challenge is just trusting my teammates, don’t try to force anything, just make my shots when I get my looks, and I’ve been shooting it well.”
On Anunoby, Leonard was complimentary of a player who used to typically only get minutes with himself off the floor — and who missed the entirety of the 2019 playoffs due to a bout with appendicitis.
“When I was here, he wasn’t really in the rotation like that,” Leonard said of Anunoby. “He worked on his game, strokes looking a lot different, playing more consistent basketball. Yeah, I mean, he wants to be better. And we know that’s the number one thing you need from a player, a team. Just somebody that wants to get better and put the work in. He obviously puts in the work to match what they’re seeing.”
As for Siakam, who Nurse compared to Leonard earlier this year from a work ethic standpoint, Leonard said he’s happy to see him blossom into one of the NBA’s top players.
“He is the one who’s out there, being very consistent, playing great basketball. You could just see it out there,” Leonard said. “It’s confidence. You know how he’s attacking, making his teammates better.”
The Raptors next visit the Clippers on March 8, with no back-to-back scheduled on either side of that contest.
Toronto can only hope that even if Leonard’s playing that game, perhaps they can get a better result this time around.