On Pro Basketball: Hard Feelings in San Antonio as Kawhi Leonard Returns
SAN ANTONIO — High above the floor at the AT&T Center hang the retired numbers of eight former San Antonio Spurs. Kawhi Leonard seemingly has a very strong case to see his old No. 2 hoisted among them someday.
“I would think so,” Danny Green said Thursday night, when he and Leonard made their shared return to San Antonio as members of the Toronto Raptors.
“He’s a finals MVP, led this team to a championship, won a couple defensive player of the years,” Green added. “Not everybody who’s come through here has done that.”
Yet it’s likewise true that no Spur over these past two decades of rampant San Antonio success left town the way Leonard did. No prominent Spur before Leonard, in the Gregg Popovich era, ever forced his way out in such contentious circumstances.
So you have to believe that it’s going to be a long time around here before the Spurs, and especially their jilted fans, will be able to look back with fondness on the undeniable highs of Leonard’s time in the Alamo City. That was the clear conclusion after the Spurs inflicted a 125-107 rout upon the Raptors in the teams’ first meeting since the blockbuster trade in July that sent Leonard to Toronto — thanks to the copious amounts of vitriol heaped in his direction for nearly three hours.
Once dubbed the “future face of the franchise” by Popovich himself, Leonard was booed relentlessly in his first game as a visitor to the building that served as home for his first seven N.B.A. seasons. He was lustily booed on all 10 shots he took during pregame layup lines, heard the home crowd’s displeasure even louder when he was introduced right after the beloved Green and was booed every time he took possession of the ball for four full quarters.
During a pregame tribute video titled “Thank You Danny & Kawhi,” Leonard and Green were alternately jeered and cheered depending on whose face showed up on the video board overhead. And on a trip to the free-throw line late in the first half, Leonard was serenaded with an unmistakable chant of “traitor, traitor, traitor.”
The Spurs capitalized on the energy in the building, as well as the injury absence of the Toronto All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry (back), and romped to a 34-11 lead. Leonard finished with a muted 21 points and found little comfort beyond a postgame hug with Popovich — just two nights removed from a career-best 45 points in a victory over Utah.
“I embraced it, enjoyed the moment and it’s only going to make me better,” Leonard insisted afterward.
Local satisfaction was only amplified by the performance from the All-Star — DeMar DeRozan — that San Antonio acquired from Toronto in exchange for Leonard. To underline the marked improvement in his playmaking since becoming a Spur, as well as surely to spite the Toronto General Manager Masai Ujiri for giving up on him, DeRozan totaled 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double.
“I told him it was about time,” joked Popovich, who added that DeRozan is “playing downhill” and “attracting a crowd” to subsequently find open teammates better than he ever envisioned when the trade was made.
“I didn’t know about the passing,” Popovich said.
Cathartic as the whole evening seemed, though, it will take much more than one beatdown for the Spurs to say they have healed from the events of last season. The team’s relationship with Leonard steadily deteriorated to the point that the Most Valuable Player of the 2014 N.B.A. finals, rather than sign a $219 million contract extension, stunningly asked out.
The presumed cause of that breakdown are disagreements over the treatment of a mysterious leg injury that limited Leonard to nine games last season. We have to presume, because Leonard has yet to explain the roots of his discontent, saying again at Thursday morning’s shootaround when asked to share his motivations for seeking a trade: “I’m not going to discuss that here today.”
What’s undeniable is that the Spurs were rocked by (and are still recovering from) Leonard’s determination to play elsewhere this season and then proceed to free agency in July, when the Los Angeles Clippers are widely expected to emerge as a serious threat to sign Leonard away from the Raptors.
Throughout the Popovich era, which began in earnest when he took over as coach 18 games into the 1996-97 season, San Antonio has emphasized and taken great pride in its player relations as much as any team on the N.B.A. map. It’s a big reason the Leonard saga stung the organization so deeply.
“It was rough on everybody,” said the San Antonio guard Bryn Forbes.
Perhaps that’s why Popovich, when speaking to reporters before the game, struggled to play down the occasion. He initially dismissed the hoopla surrounding Leonard’s return as a focus for “mostly you guys” in the news media, before ultimately admitting: “But I get it.” Popovich understands as well as anyone that these wounds won’t heal quickly for anyone in South Texas.
The Spurs, mind you, are trying. They’re up to a surprising seventh in the Western Conference at 22-17, despite a shortage of 3-point specialists at a time they have never been more valued in the game as well as concerns coming into the season about their collective ability defensively.
After a 1-4 skid in early December in which it suffered defeats by 39, 31 and 34 points, San Antonio has won 11 of 14. The Spurs also rank No. 1 in the league in offensive efficiency and No. 4 in defensive efficiency over the past month since allowing 120 points in a Dec. 7 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
It won’t be long, though, before the Spurs are reunited with Leonard again. The backdrop will be completely different, with Toronto playing host to San Antonio on Feb. 22 in front of what will surely be an adoring audience at Scotiabank Arena. But many of the same emotions are bound to be dredged up.
“They love him,” Raptors Coach Nick Nurse said of Leonard. “They love their players in Toronto, as you know, and he gives them a little bit more every game.”
As for where he stands with the San Antonians who once regarded him as an heir to those immortalized in the rafters — most notably Tim Duncan and David Robinson — Leonard was forced to acknowledge that it’s way too soon to even imagine repairing the damage his departure caused.
“I really don’t reflect on what happened probably until I retire,” Leonard said.