“It would have been cool to see him play against LeBron.”
Desiree Hogberg summed up everyone’s feelings succinctly. When Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse announced pregame on Sunday that Kawhi Leonard would sit out against the Lakers with a sore foot, the news spread quickly, deflating many in attendance. They’d come to Los Angeles to see Leonard and LeBron James face off for the first time since March 27, 2017; Sunday’s matchup would have been Leonard’s lone trip this season to play the Lakers. The disappointment came at a hefty price. Hogberg and her mom, Candace, had flown from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, and bought $440 tickets in Section 121. Instead of the game they thought they’d see, they got to watch the Raptors dominate the Lakers 42-17 in the first quarter, and then coast to a 121-107 victory during which Kawhi did not even appear on the bench.
Raptors fans around Staples Center knew what this game meant, or what it was supposed to mean. Leonard would get a close look at the arena he could play in 41 times (or more) next season, the place he had reportedly requested to go when he asked for a trade from San Antonio in June. Another fan who flew in from Toronto for the game explicitly wanted to show Leonard his support by cheering for him against the team trying to acquire him next summer. He said his tickets in Section 105 were a cool $250 apiece.
“I don’t think he wants to be in LeBron’s shadow. That’s a big shadow,” the Raptors fan said. He refused to give up his name, saying that he didn’t want anything he said to deter Leonard from staying in Toronto.
Even Raptors players knew it was supposed to be different than any other game.
“They have their own kind of hype show here in L.A.,” Fred VanVleet said at Raptors practice Saturday. “That’s just the nature of being in L.A. Add [Leonard and LeBron] to the mix and you can make whatever story you want out of that situation.”
But the uncanny timing of the game stood out as much as the spectacle. Leonard and the Raptors arrived with an 8-1 record, tied for the best in the league; the Lakers trudged into the game with a 4-5 record, and dogged by reports of Magic Johnson reprimanding head coach Luke Walton for the team’s poor start in a recent meeting. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times before the game, Magic declared that Walton’s job was safe. Then the Lakers got blown out by a Toronto team without its best player. The story was clear: The Raptors are in the good place. The Lakers, not so much.
Leonard wants you to know he didn’t grow up a Lakers fan. Yes, he’s from Los Angeles, born and raised, and played basketball at not one, but two high schools in Riverside County, 65 miles east of Staples Center. But before the question is finished being asked at Raptors practice Saturday morning, Leonard is already shaking his head no.
“My family was but I wasn’t,” Leonard said. “I liked Allen Iverson. I was an A.I. fan, so I didn’t like the Lakers.” He is sitting on a folding chair inside one of the gyms on the UCLA campus. The setting is familiar: It’s where Leonard, James, and Kevin Durant, among other NBA stars, participated in workouts this offseason. It’s also close to another gym on campus where this picture was taken in late August:
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Work is work. It don’t what matter what team we represent the @nba is a family. True professionals all trying to #perfectourcraft @kingjames @cediosman @easymoneysniper @itsjerms_33 @rmbwilliams @boch2boch and the ghost #kawhileonard ... #hardworkisundefeated #ilovethisgame #theworkisreal
By then, Leonard had already been traded to the Raptors, but reports that he preferred Los Angeles loomed. They still do, even though the Raptors have rolled to start his first season in Toronto. Leonard was nonplussed when facing questions about L.A. on Saturday.
Yes, he would spend time visiting with his family and get “some lovely hugs.” But when asked how important those hugs were, he was thrown off. “This what we talking about?” Yes, he planned to get “some good food,” but no, he wasn’t sure what that food would be. Kyle Lowry, who was sitting next to Leonard, scoffed at the idea that his teammate would be making some “spontaneous” dining choices. Kawhi smiled slightly. Saturday’s scrum at UCLA was Leonard’s only media appearance of the weekend, and he couldn’t have been more pleased. Soon after Saturday’s interview was over, Leonard muttered, “This is why I don’t like talking to the media.”
Leonard seemed more willing to engage when questions turned to LeBron. For all the talk about the possibility of them playing together, what links them is their battles in the 2013 and 2014 Finals. Leonard referred to those matchups between the Spurs and LeBron’s Miami Heat team as “competitive,” and said that was why he relished them. It was cursory language, even clichéd, but if there’s any player who can call his history with LeBron “competitive,” it is Leonard, who once made LeBron do this. “Kawhi was born as a star in that time,” VanVleet said of the playoff series, which he watched from afar. “That was his beginning of being a star.”
If most of this sounds familiar by now, it should. Two weeks ago, Paul George stood inside a different gym at the UCLA campus and received similar questions about coming back to his hometown. However, George’s decision had already been made. A year after asking out of Indiana with the intention of ultimately signing with the Lakers, George signed a new deal with Oklahoma City that will span at least the next three seasons.
George knew the drill. “I’ve been getting this for the past three or four years of my career, so it’s nothing new,” he said regarding questions about returning home. Earlier that week, he had told The Undefeated that he had planned on signing with the Lakers before he was traded from the Pacers to the Thunder. That changed when he found himself practicing on Russell Westbrook Court, next to Russell Westbrook.
The Raptors made a bold play for Leonard, similar to the one the Thunder made for George, and now they’re hoping Leonard follows George’s lead. In the meantime, the Raptors are slowly becoming Kawhi’s team. Leonard is averaging a career-high 26.1 points per game on a career-high number of shots in a career-high minutes average. DeMar DeRozan, the player unceremoniously traded to the Spurs, is a great player, but Leonard is a superstar. Or, as an awestruck Jonas Valanciunas, said: “Kawhi doesn’t need to talk, he doesn’t talk nonsense. He’s a killer.”
In many ways, Leonard and the Raptors are the antithesis of LeBron and the Lakers. LeBron’s team will always be in the spotlight, while Leonard constantly recedes from it. The differences trickle down to their rosters too. The Lakers are full of aspiration, from their core of young players still trying to carve out names for themselves down to Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka eschewing conventional wisdom in favor of playmaking above all else. They play fast, but they can’t shoot; they can switch on defense, but there’s only one player who can protect the rim. The Raptors, meanwhile, are a fully realized contender—they have shooting and size and everyone can play defense. The Lakers are trying to win their way. The Raptors are just winning.
The visiting team made that distinction abundantly clear with an avalanche to start Sunday’s game. Serge Ibaka outscored the Lakers in the first quarter by himself (20-17) and finished with a career-high 34 points. Toronto didn’t even shoot well from 3 (28.6 percent) and still scored 121 points. The Lakers, playing on the second night of a back-to-back after a game that went down to the wire in Portland, were helpless. “They are the best team in the Eastern Conference and they came out and hit us in the mouth,” LeBron said afterward, inside a quiet Lakers locker room.
The Raptors locker room, meanwhile, was gleeful. Even Leonard flashed a few smiles. What better way to make the case to Leonard that he should stay than by dominating his top suitor on their home court? The Lakers may have hope, but the Raptors have a proven product—one that can get by without its best player. Pascal Siakam said the team was especially motivated to win on a night when Leonard sat.
Siakam is the perfect representative of what the Raptors have built. The power forward was plucked out of New Mexico State with the 27th pick in the 2016 draft. He was thrown right into the fire, playing rotation minutes in his first two seasons and drawing tough playoff matchups against the likes of LeBron. He and other young players, such as OG Anunoby, gained meaningful experience, all while the Raptors rose to the top of the East. Now that combination of talent, experience, and upside has raised Toronto’s ceiling higher than last season’s 59 wins. “I don’t think any of us feel like we’ve been playing well, so that just kind of shows you where we feel like we can be,” VanVleet said. “We’re figuring it out while winning, which is great.”
Perhaps because it has such a steady core, Toronto has opted to ease Leonard back from the troublesome quad injury that derailed his last season in San Antonio, playing him on only one half of back-to-backs. He was absent Sunday because of a foot injury he suffered at the end of Friday’s win in Phoenix, but even without that he likely would have sat out either this game or Monday’s matchup against the Jazz. One person inside the Raptors organization said the expectation is that Leonard will be fully healthy around the All-Star break. “I think he’s playing more free this year,” the source said.
But when Leonard sits, the Raptors are still in capable hands. Toronto is now 2-1 in games that Kawhi has missed, with the lone loss coming to an 8-1 Bucks team that was playing without Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Lakers are 4-6 and still trying to figure things out, especially on a night like Sunday, when James played just 28 minutes.
“We’re all in early stages trying to figure out how to play with each other—we are, they are,” Nurse said. “[LeBron’s] getting there.”
Nurse’s answer was diplomatic, but Sunday night, it was clear that one team is adapting better.