Leonard’s return to Scotiabank Arena left Raptors nation with a valuable memory

Eduardo Harari
BarnBurner Sports Writer

@edharari

Thursday, December 12, 2019


 

TORONTO. – From the early hours of morning, the level of excitement around Scotiabank Arena could be felt as Raptor Nation and NBA fans alike lined up in an attempt to find available tickets to the evenings game against the L.A. Clippers.

Tickets were going at astronomical figures as $7000.00 for a 3rd level seat. I am not saying that the prices didn’t merit the occasion but let’s be honest, for some Toronto residents that figure is two or three months of sustenance of their entire family. Its time for the authorities to start doing something to eliminate this awful business that really puts a demeaner in the enjoyment of any entertainment activity because of lack of accessibility.

But let’s get back to the real reason people were scrambling to find tickets and why this city including its mayor wanted to be there to watch. The evening would be one of the last occasions for the players and the organization to rejoice in what was Canada’s ultimate sports victory run in the last 25 + years.

It was also the return of one of Canada’s recently departed children Kwahi Leonard who took this country by storm in his only season of play with the Raptors. It was going to be the culmination of that trip for him and the organization when he would be presented with his lifelong reminder of his place in a countries history.

Both New Balance and the Raptors went out of their way to make this day a special one for Kwahi and the Raptors fans by placing Billboards in the focal points of the city announcing and thanking Kwahi for his contribution to the country, city and team.

Toronto awoke to a new billboard above the Eaton Centre at Dundas Square, one put up by Leonard’s sponsor, New Balance. It featured Leonard, standing on a nondescript basketball court in a plain white T-shirt, his oversized hand palming a ball, topped by the message ‘Thank You Toronto.’

The Raptors posted one-day video billboards as well to celebrate Leonard. One, above Scotiabank Arena, pictured the champagne-soaked superstar in goggles, alongside the words ‘Fun Guy In Town.’ Another, overlooking the Gardiner Expressway, featured parade-day Leonard with the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the caption ‘Board Man Gets His Ring.’

Inside Scotiabank Arena for the morning shootaround, the gym floor was packed with media from across North America. When he eventually made it to the court, the crowd of reporters scrumming around him was so robust some had to climb onto the scorer’s table to get a glimpse of him. Among their questions for Leonard was how seriously he had considered re-signing with the Raptors before opting to leave for his hometown Clippers.

“I gave it a big consideration,” Leonard said. “I took my time; I didn’t hurry up and make a quick decision. I talked to the front office in deep detail. It was a hard choice to make.”

His day started with a cluster of reports lined up to enter the visiting dressing room to catch a couple of words from him about his state of mind prior to the game. As the moment got closer, he was greeted to a standing ovation when he took the court for the pre-game warmups.

"I’m happy to be back, excited to get the ring tonight, but we’re here to play a game," he said. "That’s how I feel."

This isn’t to say that nothing about being back in Toronto doesn’t hold any deeper meaning for him, though.

"This is my first time back in the city since the parade," said Leonard. "Obviously, those flashbacks come back driving over to the arena."

As for some of his standout memories: "Just the locker room talk, just going through that journey. The fan support around the city, walking through the city. I mean it’s a whole bunch of things that all add together."

Leonard was showered with a standing ovation from the Toronto crowd, who also stood throughout a video tribute to the one-year Raptors standout.

The crowd noise swelled during the pre-game tribute video with Leonard and the other Clippers looking up to watch on the big screen.

The 110-second video went dark for several seconds building up to footage of Leonard's four-bounce series winner against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern semifinal. Down below, Kawhi's "footsteps" lit up on the floor and a spotlight shining on the basket where he hit the famous shot.

"It's always great to see guys get a ring, especially when they're on your team now," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. "This is a different one, though. It's a really cool one because he was the leader of the group, coming back to get it in front of a crowd. I've never experienced it like this."

He was all business come game time. The megastar received his ring in a pre-game ceremony, speeding through quick hugs with a line of his former teammates. The final teammate was Lowry, who handed him the oversized gold and diamond-covered plum-sized ring. Leonard admired it for a fleeting moment and raised his arms to acknowledge the crowd’s ear-splitting ovation.

“We just laughed out there. I knew he was going to present me the ring before,” recalled Leonard later. “Memories went through our heads.”

In his first regular-season game back in Canada since leaving the Raptors, the reigning NBA Finals MVP didn’t disappoint as he put on a show for those in the arena. He scored 23 points on 8-of-14 shooting to help his Los Angeles Clippers to a 112-92 victory. It was the fourth loss in five games for Toronto.

Pascal Siakam had 24 points for the Raptors while Norman Powell had 22 as the Raptors slipped to 16-8. Kyle Lowry had six points on a 1-for-8 shooting off night, while Serge Ibaka went scoreless on eight shots. As a team, they shot a troublesome 8-of-36 from three-point range.

“We’re in a period where we’re not playing very well here for about a week. It’s strange because last [Sunday] against Utah we may have played the best half of basketball we’ve ever seen in this building. So, things can change quickly,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “We have to get back to who we are, which is very good defensively, ball movement and a good shooting team and we’ll be there.”

He was all business come game time. The megastar received his ring in a pre-game ceremony, speeding through quick hugs with a line of his former teammates. The final teammate was Lowry, who handed him the oversized gold and diamond-covered plum-sized ring. Leonard admired it for a fleeting moment and raised his arms to acknowledge the crowd’s ear-splitting ovation.

“We just laughed out there. I knew he was going to present me the ring before,” recalled Leonard later. “Memories went through our heads.”

In the first quarter, the home team seemed to handle the emotions well, looking sharper than they had in several outings. OG Anunoby chased Leonard around defensively. When the young Raptor was called for a foul, the crowd backed Anunoby by loudly groaning the call. The Raptors led 32-27 at the end of the 1st quarter.

Toronto was missing Fred VanVleet, who sat for a second straight game with a knee injury. They did get Patrick McCaw back – he eased into his first action in 17 games following arthroscopic knee surgery.

Toronto collapsed in the second quarter. Leonard showed his game, reminding all of his dominance. He beat a Toronto triple team of Anunoby, Siakam and Serge Ibaka by sliding a savvy pass between them to Ivica Zubac in the middle of the paint, resulting in an easy bucket. He masterfully took Lowry off the dribble. He drained jumpers. He picked the point guard’s pocket for a crafty steal.

His Clippers outscored the Raptors 37-14 in the second quarter as the home team floundered. Toronto trailed by a concerning 18 at half-time. The word in the street is that the play of Lowry and Ibaka coming of their injuries isn’t at the level of old.

“I thought before they got injured, they were both playing maybe the best they’d ever played,” said Nurse. “We’ve got to get them back in rhythm and shape or whatever it is and let them work their way out of this.”

Toronto came back half through the third quarter and cut the deficit to five. They manufactured a steal off Leonard that resulted in a monstrous Anunoby dunk. The team created string of scoring and steals, but the westerners quickly placed a stop to it and built their lead back up.

“I don’t think we were happy with what we’re doing defensively,” said Lowry. “We were giving up wide open threes.”

“I thought our passing in that first half was the best we’d had all year,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “Talked about it in shootaround, just let them come, look around, find your guy. We did it because of the traps and our guys were patient.”

Although he appeared the picture of a player who has moved on, Leonard acknowledged after the game that he appreciated the moment with his championship teammates, and his new piece of jewellery.

“I got it after the game, sat in the locker room with it for a little bit and just admired it and remembered the memories and the hard work that went into it,” said Leonard in his post-game scrum.

The Raptors will now continue the last 2 games of their homestand against Brooklyn on Saturday and Cleveland next Monday.