SAN ANTONIO — For one night, at least, the Spurs won the Kawhi Leonard trade.
In his first game back in San Antonio since the Spurs traded him to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Leonard and the Raptors were routed 125-107 in a game that was even less competitive than the final score indicated.
“I don’t think we handled this one very well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
Said Leonard: “We didn’t play well at all defensively. The Spurs did a great job pushing the pace and kicking out for wide-open shots.”
When the game was over, Leonard had a long hug and conversation with former coach Gregg Popovich at center court. Popovich began talking to Leonard, then told television cameras to get away from them and the two moved closer to San Antonio’s bench. After continuing to talk for a couple of minutes, Leonard then spoke with Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland, in addition to several former teammates before leaving the court.
Leonard, who led Toronto (28-12) with 21 points on 8-for-13 shooting to go with five assists, was loudly booed as soon as he stepped onto the court for pregame warm-ups, again during introductions and at any point throughout the game when he had the ball.
He said he wasn’t surprised or disappointed by the reception he received, and blamed the media for the way the fans reacted.
“Probably,” he said, when asked if he expected to be booed. “But I embraced it and enjoyed the moment and it’s only going to make me better.
“[The] media does a great job to stir people’s minds and influence them to think a certain way,” Leonard added. “So I already knew how that was going to be, the way the media was.”
Those were the only times the fans at AT&T Center had anything bad to say about the proceedings, however, as San Antonio — which has now won 11 of its past 14 games — demolished Toronto, which entered the game with more wins than any other NBA team.
That effort was led by DeMar DeRozan who, like Leonard, was facing his old team for the first time. Although DeRozan, who declared on Raptors forward Serge Ibaka‘s cooking show this summer that he was going to score 50 points against Toronto, didn’t quite get that far, he did more than enough to help the Spurs dismantle the Raptors.
He finished the game with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists, recording the first triple-double of his NBA career in his 714th regular-season game, leading a complete effort from the Spurs that saw them shoot 55 percent from the field and finish with six players in double figures, led by LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 23.
“It really wasn’t nothing,” DeRozan said. “It was fun. It was extremely fun.
“It wasn’t emotional at all for me. … It was just a fun game for me.”
Toronto, on the other hand, couldn’t get out of its own way. The Raptors shot just 6-for-30 (20 percent) from 3-point range and generally looked discombobulated from start to finish. There was no better example of that than Danny Green, who was also making his return to San Antonio after heading to Toronto in the trade with Leonard in exchange for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick. Green finished the game scoreless, missing all seven of his shots — including going 0-for-6 from 3-point range.
“Disappointed in our play more than anything,” Green said. “And in my play, especially.”
The Spurs fans chant “traitor” as Kawhi Leonard lines up to shoot free throws in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, San Antonio — despite Popovich’s protestations otherwise beforehand — played this game as if their lives depended on it. Even the coach admitted afterward he wasn’t telling the truth about that.
“Well, two things,” Popovich said. “One, that was a lie. A lot of people think it was a big game. But the truth is what I said after that: that we’ve never concentrated on one game. It’s always about getting better, executing, and competing for more of the 48 minutes than your opponent.
“That’s your goal every single night. It doesn’t matter who you are playing.”
While Leonard was booed any time he was involved in the game, Green was cheered just as loudly throughout pregame introductions.
It made for an odd juxtaposition — particularly when the Spurs, before the game began, played a tribute video honoring both Leonard and Green for their contributions to the franchise. Each time Green was shown on the screen, the crowd would erupt into cheers — which would then be followed by boos when Leonard was on the screen.
The same thing happened during introductions, when Green was introduced first — to a standing ovation — and Leonard was then quickly introduced after him, though fans still didn’t miss the chance to boo him some more. Both the video and the way the introductions were handled were examples of the Spurs, who had concerned about trying to mitigate the negative energy sent Leonard’s way Thursday night, trying to do just that.
“I felt badly about it,” Popovich said of the way Leonard was treated. “Kawhi’s a high-character guy. We all make decisions in our lives with what we’re going to do with our futures, and he has that same right as any of us. So I felt badly, in all honesty.”
There was nothing Popovich or the Spurs could do about the reaction of fans, however, when the game began. And every time Leonard touched the ball as the game progressed, the fans made it a point to express their displeasure with the star who, after playing only nine games last season, made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the franchise any longer.
The most vicious moment came midway through the second quarter when, after Leonard was fouled, fans began chanting “traitor” at him. Eventually, the chants dissolved into boos — and then cheers when Leonard missed the second free throw.
“I mean, it was expected,” Green said of how the fans reacted. “We can hope, predict, and you expect the worst, but I’ve been in this league long enough where you know there’s going to be some boos, there’s going to be some cheers.
“I wasn’t disappointed. I kind of expected it to be one or the other, and it wasn’t shocking.”
Things went sour between Leonard and San Antonio last season when there was a disagreement between Leonard and the Spurs over how to handle the tendinopathy in his left quadricep that bothered him throughout 2017-18. Leonard wound up playing only nine games with the Spurs — none after mid-January — and missed San Antonio’s five-game loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
After scoring the opening basket of the game — a driving layup, on which he was also fouled — Leonard flexed and let out a yell. It was far more than his usual reaction to a made basket, especially to start a game, and was probably a better indication about his feelings in facing his old team than anything he said at his interview session before Thursday’s morning shootaround.
“At times, yeah,” Leonard said, when asked if he had any regrets about how his last year with the Spurs played out. “But it’s a new year, new season. I’m just looking at what is in front of us right now.”
That opening basket was about the lone bright spot for the Raptors, though, as the Spurs jumped out to a 15-5 lead and kept their foot on the gas from there. San Antonio led by as many as 23 points in the first quarter, and finished the opening 12 minutes with a 38-19 lead. DeRozan had 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in the first quarter alone, and finished the first half with 19 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists — the first time a Spur had at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists in a half since Tim Duncan did it 12 years ago.
The rest of the Spurs looked equally motivated for a chance to exact some revenge on Leonard. Outside of a surge late in the second quarter that cut a lead of what was once as many as 26 points down to 16 at the break, Toronto was in a shambles.
Once the second half resumed, it was more of the same. While Toronto began the third quarter missing six straight shots — including four 3s — San Antonio went on a 12-0 run to push the Spurs’ lead back to 28 points, and left the ending decided aside from the final score.
“I feel good except for losing the game,” Leonard said. “I’m glad I walked off the floor healthy. We got some things as a team to look at and get better at. But the past is the past and I’m still playing.
“I really won’t reflect on what has happened until I retire. I just try to keep moving and get better on what we are doing.”