LOS ANGELES — Before facing his old team for the first time since winning the championship, Kawhi Leonard ran into some of his former Toronto Raptors teammates and team staff members.
“Hey, hey, hey,” Leonard said with a smile to one Raptor, echoing the phrase that went viral on opening night, when he started to deliver a message to fans before that game.
Once they were on the court, the Raptors reminded Leonard just how pesky they can be, trapping him often at half court and harassing the Finals MVP into his worst game of the season so far.
Leonard missed nine of 11 shots but still got the best of his old team, narrowly missing a triple-double with 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists to help the Clippers take a 98-88 win over the Raptors at Staples Center.
Afterward, Leonard hugged and greeted several of his former teammates, but he made it clear that he has moved on from his one special year with Toronto.
“It’s over now,” Leonard said when asked if he had any feelings from last season’s championship run going through his head during the game. “We won. Like I said before, I had a great time there. But it’s the next chapter now.
“I can’t live in the past or just be so excited that I still won [a championship]. I’m with a different team and a different unit, and they want to have that same feeling, and I do as well. I’m a Clipper right now.”
The Raptors did all they could to take the ball out of Leonard’s hands. In fact, they nearly forced Leonard into a quadruple-double, as he had a career-high nine turnovers.
The Raptors led 79-75 early in the fourth, as their traps and ball-hawking length bothered Leonard into missing nine of his first 10 shots. Despite leading the league in fourth-quarter scoring, Leonard made only one basket in the final quarter.
Still, Leonard has found a way to make game-winning plays in the fourth for the Clippers (7-3), and he added two free throws right after that to help the Clippers complete a 15-5 run that pushed them up by six. When Toronto got within four late, Leonard found Montrezl Harrell for a dunk before sealing the game with two free throws.
“They [made] me better tonight,” Leonard said. “As soon as I walked across half court, they were trying to get the ball out of my hands, sending an extra defender. It’s going to [make] my teammates better. [Opponents are] going to do it at times in the playoffs and regular season, and they are going to knock down the open shot. That’s what wins games: open shots.
“We came out with the win, and they did a great job on me tonight. … But I’m glad they did. It [made] me better, and it’s going to [make] my teammates better as well.”
Despite spending just one season together, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse has kept in touch with his former star by FaceTiming with Leonard over the past few months and checking on his family.
“We had a son at a similar time,” Nurse said. ” … Just watching from afar. … He looks happy, and his family is happy, and that’s all you can ask for.”
“We talked about the kids and things like that,” Nurse added when asked about any conversation with Leonard during the game. “That was it. I don’t talk much out there. He damn sure doesn’t talk.”
Leonard was happy to let the final score do the talking. “It was fun,” he said. “It’s even better coming out with a win. My teammates made shots. It wasn’t one of those nights for me.”
“It’s just fun being able to compete against guys you were with last year. We grew a relationship,” he added. “From that aspect, it’s a little bit more competitive because you do talk to them. So can tell them that we won the game tonight. But I can’t get out of the team character. We have a goal for ourselves to come out and win as a whole.”
Information from ESPN’s Baxter Holmes was used in this report.