SAN ANTONIO — For one night, at least, the Spurs won the Kawhi Leonard trade.
In his first game back in San Antonio since being traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Leonard and the Raptors were routed by the Spurs, as San Antonio beat Toronto 125-107 in a game that was even less competitive than the final score indicated.
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 in his hands.
Those were the only times the fans here at AT&T Center had anything bad to say about the proceedings, however, as San Antonio — which has now won 11 of its last 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. While 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 floor and finish with six players in double figures, led by LaMarcus Aldridge scoring 23.
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.
Meanwhile, San Antonio — despite coach Gregg Popovich’s protestations otherwise beforehand — played this game like their lives depended on it.
“Why?” he replied to a question about whether he just wanted to get the game over with. “It’s another game.”
Regarding the attention that was placed on the game, he said, “That’s mostly you guys [the media]. To us in the middle of it, it’s another battle. Then there’s another one Saturday, and then there’s another one Monday. It just goes on.
“I’ve never paid too much attention to what the building is like to be honest with you. I’ve been doing this a long time, and before I go to the game, I don’t check a meter to see how jacked up everybody may or may not be. You just go play.
“But I get it, fans and all that sort of thing. When I’m watching a playoff football game, I get excited for certain reasons that make no sense probably.”
The Spurs fans chant “traitor” as Kawhi Leonard lines up to shoot free throws in the second quarter.
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.
There was nothing the Spurs could do about that, 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, and was traded last summer.
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.
Things went sour between Leonard and San Antonio last year when there was a disagreement between Leonard and the Spurs over how to handle the tendinopathy in his left quadricep that bothered him all season long. 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 likely a better indication about his feelings about facing his old team than anything he said at his interview session prior to Thursday’s morning shootaround here at AT&T Center.
“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 nine points, eight rebounds and four assists in the first quarter alone, and finished the first half with 19 points, 10 rebounds and five assists — the first time a Spur had at least 15 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a half since Tim Duncan did it 12 years ago.
The rest of the Spurs looked equally motivated for a chance to extract some revenge from Leonard. Outside of a surge surge late in the second quarter cut a lead of what was once as many as 26 points down to 16 at the break, Toronto was in shambles.
Once the second half resumed, it was more of the same. While Toronto began the third quarter missing six straight shots — including four threes — San Antonio went on a 12-0 run to push the Spurs’ lead back to 28 points, and left the ending decided other than the final score.