Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Raptors maintain mutual respect despite departure

LOS ANGELES — The previous teammates seem not likely to switch many pleasantries after they go paths quickly. The explanations don’t have anything to do with Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors sharing any misgivings. Leonard simply stays economical along with his phrases.

Therefore, Leonard didn’t appear nostalgic with the Los Angeles Clippers (6-Three) webhosting the Raptors (6-2) on Monday at Staples Middle. It’s been handiest 5 months since Leonard led Toronto to an NBA championship. It’s been handiest 4 months since Leonard left for the Clippers as a loose agent. And but …

“It’s like another recreation,” Leonard stated. “It’ll be a laugh to look the blokes once more and congratulate them and have the ability to shake arms. Then we’ll compete.”

That mindset in part explains why Leonard’s former teammates nonetheless recognize him. Despite the fact that he left a championship group, the Raptors arguably shouldn’t have gained one had they no longer got Leonard the former offseason from the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard accumulated his 2nd Finals MVP after averaging 28.five issues on 43.Three% taking pictures together with nine.eight rebounds and four.2 assists within the Raptors’ five-game collection win over the Golden State Warriors within the NBA Finals.

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His former teammates have no longer judged Leonard handiest on his manufacturing, regardless that. They recognize him for his paintings conduct, his versatility and unexpected vocal management. So although Danny Inexperienced and Marc Gasol weren’t solely certain if Leonard would keep or move following the Raptors’ identify run, they expected and understood his departure. Why no longer go back to Los Angeles so he can play for a championship contender and keep with regards to his fatherland in Moreno Valley?

“Whilst you discuss going again house to play for his neighborhood, I don’t assume that are supposed to ever wonder you. That was once a objective of his,” Gasol instructed USA TODAY Sports activities. “You must at all times need your teammates to be at liberty and be in a just right state of affairs. He must perceive from a participant perspective that we care about him extra on account of what we’ve been via. We would like him to be at liberty.”

The Lakers had was hoping Leonard would be at liberty to enroll in them. They already had LeBron James closing season, and he had since healed from a left groin damage that sidelined him for 27 video games. The Lakers additionally got Anthony Davis after buying and selling an important chew in their younger core and 3 draft alternatives to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Lakers nonetheless had sufficient cap house to signal Leonard to a max deal. Even though the Lakers have no longer made the playoffs prior to now six years, they have got unequalled logo fairness in Los Angeles and globally on account of the franchise’s 16 championships and big name energy.

- Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Raptors maintain mutual respect despite departure

Instead, Leonard found the Clippers more enticing for the focus more on substance than glitter. He became impressed with the Clippers’ ability to challenge the Warriors through six games in the first round of the playoffs. He liked the Clippers’ stability with their owner (Steve Ballmer), front office (Laurence Frank, Michael Wallace) and head coach (Doc Rivers). So Leonard joined the Clippers, who also acquired Paul George from Oklahoma City for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and a handful of draft picks. Once Leonard made his decision, Green joined the Lakers on a three-year, $32 million deal fully understanding his former teammate’s thought process.

“Everybody knows he wanted to be in LA. But it would’ve been more of a surprise if he made a different decision,” Green told USA TODAY Sports. “I couldn’t see him trying to team up with LeBron and AD. I just don’t think that’s his personality. If he was going to go back (to Toronto), I think he’d want the whole team back or have some different types of pieces move in. But I don’t think it was a surprise to anybody where he ended up.”

The Raptors did not seem surprised either with how Leonard’s season fared with them. He had already won an NBA championship and a Finals MVP when the Spurs unseated the Miami Heat in 2014. Toronto traded a franchise cornerstone (DeMar DeRozan), an emerging center (Jakob Poeltl) and a 2019 first-round pick for Leonard and Green. The Raptors did it without any assurances Leonard would stay beyond one season.

“I never went in with a negative mindset,” Leonard said. “I was always open-minded.”

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Because of that, Leonard soon formed strong bonds with the Raptors.

After playing only nine games during his final season with San Antonio because of complications with his injured left quad, Leonard and the Raptors outlined a “load management program.” Leonard missed 22 games, including numerous back-to-backs. He also received prolonged treatment following games and on off days. Most NBA players complete that routine, but Leonard’s teammates noticed it became much more extensive.

Not only did Leonard receive treatment for his knees and quad muscles, he stretched, lifted and rehabbed religiously to ensure his entire body felt healthy.

“He looked at the bigger picture,” Gasol said. “November, December and January — all of those months lead up to what matters the most in the playoffs and how far you can get. You want to be healthy and peaking at that time. So I completely understand what load management means.”

That forced the Raptors to adjust with and without Leonard. When Leonard sat, the Raptors went 17-5. When Leonard played, Toronto finished 41-19. Through both circumstances, the Raptors also relied on a steady play-maker and feisty defender (Kyle Lowry), an improving shooter and rebounder (Pascal Siakam), a burly and versatile center (Gasol), a dependable defender (OG Anunoby) and reliable sharpshooters (Green, Fred VanVleet).

“It made us a stronger and deeper team,” Green said. “Having to play through adversity and playing with guys hurt, it gave a lot of young guys opportunity. Some of the other guys became veterans and experienced some stuff. In that sense, it allowed guys to step up, show improvements and make people comfortable in situations they normally are not comfortable in.”

Once the playoffs started, all parties became comfortable. Leonard appeared the most comfortable. He lifted the Raptors with a dramatic game-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the second round. In the Eastern Conference finals, Leonard led the charge to limit Milwaukee MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo in Game 1 (7-of-16, five turnovers) and Game 3 (7-of-16, eight turnovers). Leonard became an emerging play-maker against Philadelphia (4.0 assists), Milwaukee (4.3) and Golden State (4.2).

“It’s just my mindset,” Leonard said. “I’m just coming in and putting in extra shooting and having a confidence I have a tool under my belt. I’m able to do it. It’s just about challenging myself to get better and wanting to do it over and over again.”

Leonard has done almost the same thing with the Clippers. They have played seven games, and Leonard has appeared in five as part of his load management program. Still, the early returns show Leonard on pace to post career highs in points (29), rebounds (8.1) and assists (5.4). Rivers has observed that Leonard “talks winning a lot.” He does not speak in platitudes. Instead, he offers specifics on X’s and O’s.

“Everything is true about his makeup,” George said. “He works hard, great teammate and great locker room guy. He actually does talk. He’s a fun guy. The legend is true. You have to know him. If you don’t know him, you don’t get that side.”

The Raptors have seen that side. So even if their pregame exchanges might entail just a quick hello or a light hug, the Raptors and Leonard feel warm about each other. 

“It’s not like he left on bad terms,” Rivers said. “It’s one of those leave-good situations, not one of those leave-awful situations. And let’s be honest. In our league, it’s usually the other way. He’s had the benefit, the rare benefit, of being able to leave in a happy state.”

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Fb and Instagram.

- Clippers' Kawhi Leonard and Raptors maintain mutual respect despite departure

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