In all likelihood, Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers will meet again in five months.
It is no secret the Clippers covet Leonard, the Southern California native and Raptors’ All-Star forward who will be a free agent following this season. The Clippers played the Raptors twice this season, the latest matchup Sunday’s 121-103 defeat at Scotiabank Arena, yet team executives have appeared at various games along Toronto’s schedule to make their presence known.
On Sunday, it was Clippers owner Steve Ballmer. The billionaire was in town on other business, but it did not go unnoticed that he watched the Clippers’ third loss in their last four games from a courtside seat opposite his team’s bench, where he had an up-close view of Leonard’s 18-point, five-rebound performance.
Perhaps the only one who said he didn’t see? Leonard.
"I don’t really pay attention to who’s at the game or anything like that,” he said.
The Raptors, who traded for Leonard from San Antonio last summer, hope to bring Leonard back into the fold this summer for the same reasons as the Clippers. He is a rare kind of star, a force at both ends of the floor.
“Most players you game plan on one end,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “There are probably four guys in the entire league that you work on your end of the game stuff with him in mind defensively. It’s hard because you know he’s going to be on one of your good players, but you try to get him away from the action somehow and if you do that that means you’re taking out one of your good players. He’s just tough. He really is.”
Leonard was tough, but he was not the only thing working against the Clippers on Sunday.
They tipped off 19 hours after finishing a 25-point comeback to beat Detroit, a turnaround Rivers called unlike any he’d seen in his last 30 years in the NBA.
“I don’t complain a lot about scheduling,” he said. “This one, right when we saw it, it’s ridiculous.”
The Clippers (29-25) made a season-low two three-pointers and missed numerous point-blank attempts inside the paint en route to a game that was as close to the definition of “schedule loss” as there is in the NBA.
“I don’t think we have guy that’s wired to just mail one in,” said Lou Williams, who scored 18 points. “They were energetic, played a better game than we did.”
If Sunday was an opportunity for the Clippers to put their best foot forward in front of Leonard, the result did not help. If it was about showing him a glimpse of the team’s future, then it didn’t hurt that rookie point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a team-high 19 points, with five rebounds and three assists, in his first professional game in his native country.
“Obviously a tough night, a lot of our shots didn’t drop,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Really just wanted to win, to be honest. All the other stuff doesn’t matter to me.”
He played under a spotlight of Canadian media who arrived specifically to speak with him and in front of friends and family, and was the Clippers’ most efficient starter for a second consecutive game. Aggressive from the start, he scored six of his team’s first nine points.
“I was really happy for Shai because usually you really struggle when you come home your first night,” Rivers said. “He came in and played great. He was the bright spot.”
The Clippers trailed by 12 in the first quarter before center Boban Marjanovic was inserted, and a 12-0 Los Angeles run ended the quarter. The Raptors (38-16), who have won 11 of their last 12 home games, nonetheless led by 14 at halftime as the Clippers failed to make a single three-pointer.
They trimmed their deficit to 11 with 3:44 remaining in the third quarter, but the Raptors pushed it back to 19 two minutes later.
“We had a really good win yesterday, an emotional win, and then to come here and play this game, with the time on the schedule, it was tough,” said Tobias Harris, who scored 13 points on five-of-18 shooting while playing through a right shoulder injury for a second consecutive game. “It was tough for us to really get into a rhythm out there tonight, I thought. We had a lot of good looks that just didn’t fall down, including myself.”
The Clippers have big dreams of teaming with Leonard in the future, but facing him Sunday led to a miserable present. The Super Bowl’s kickoff was only an hour away by the time the Clippers walked off the court and they packed and left quickly for their watch party at the team’s hotel.