Early on during their lone season together in Toronto, Raptors coach Nick Nurse learned that Kawhi Leonard was difficult to rattle.
Emotionally, the star forward was never too high and never too low, and as the most valuable player of an NBA Finals, he’d seen nearly everything.
But then, within last season’s first week, Leonard was double-teamed so forcefully, and constantly, by one opponent that it “startled” both Leonard and the Raptors, Nurse recalled.
The coach kept the strategy in his back pocket. Almost exactly a year later, Nurse put it to use Monday night, this time against Leonard.
“As soon as I walked across half court,” Leonard said, “they were trying to get the ball out of my hands.”
Facing the team he won an NBA title with last season for the first time since picking the Clippers in free agency, Leonard faced Raptors double-teams from start to finish at Staples Center, finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists but also nine turnovers.
Statistically, it was his least-impactful performance of the season. But there also was something else Nurse learned during his one-on-one meetings with Leonard last season. All he cared about, Leonard would reiterate, was winning.
And Monday, despite the frenzied coverages he faced — none of which he remembered the Raptors using last season — Leonard emerged pleased from a reunion that resembled a slugfest.
The Clippers had won 98-88.
“It wasn’t one of those nights for me,” he said, “and we came out with a win.”
The Clippers shot 37% from the field and 22% on three-pointers but grabbed 66 rebounds and played a tall lineup late in the fourth quarter that helped them wrest control of a back-and-forth game for good.
“What’d they have, 10 points in the fourth quarter?” coach Doc Rivers said. “This was one of those defensive wins.”
Lou Williams scored a team-high 21 points and Montrezl Harrell added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Clippers (7-3), who begin a two-game trip Wednesday at Houston with the knowledge that even with their star unable to play his best, they can still win.
“We can still lock people up and get stops and win a game like that,” center Ivica Zubac said.
Pascal Siakam led Toronto (7-3) with 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds one night after the Raptors outlasted the Lakers without point guard Kyle Lowry and forward Serge Ibaka, who are hurt. Rivers called the Raptors’ fight against the Lakers despite playing short-handed the dangerous “wounded-dog theory” of basketball, one that applied Monday, as well.
Trailing 9-2 and without starting guard OG Anunoby, whose night was limited to two minutes and a bloody eye after an inadvertent poke from Leonard, the Raptors outscored the Clippers 21-6 the rest of the quarter. Aided by many of the same bench contributors who sealed Sunday’s win — including 6-foot-9 Chris Boucher, whose eight first-quarter points and length caused problems — Toronto’s run was met with thunderous applause from fans who made the setting feel north of the border.
For all of the discussion surrounding Leonard’s game against his ex, some of Clippers’ best work of the first half was done with him on the bench. The Clippers trailed 39-35 when he checked out with 4:38 remaining in the first half before starting a 16-7 run to take a lead before his return four minutes later.
The Clippers also finished the game short-handed. Shooting guard Landry Shamet did not return after injuring his left ankle with 1:45 to play in the third quarter while defending his former Wichita State teammate Fred VanVleet. Shamet appeared to have his left foot stepped on and he tumbled backward, grimacing, and required the help of two staffers to be carried off the court.
He left the locker room on crutches.
The fourth-quarter scoring barrage that marked nearly every appearance by Leonard this season did not arrive. Averaging a league-best 13.5 points per fourth quarter, Leonard didn’t score until the midway point, on a jump shot to put the Clippers ahead, 89-84. Two minutes later his dribble was ripped away by VanVleet, but the Raptors could not convert the turnover into points.
Leonard compensated in timely ways. Jogging upcourt with 60 seconds remaining in the game after gathering a defensive rebound, he bounced a right-handed pass between the transition defense of Marc Gasol and VanVleet and found Harrell, who flushed a dunk for a 94-88 lead. Leonard also added a pair of free throws.
“We totally outplayed them, I thought,” Nurse said. “We were playing harder, we were out-executing better. We were creating a lot of problems for [Leonard], but not quite enough.”
Leonard called the night “fun,” but downplayed the idea that extra emotions came attached with it.
“Like I said before I had a great time there but it’s the next chapter now,” he said.
“I can’t live in the past or just be so excited that I still won. I’m with a different team, a different unit. They want to have that same feeling and I do, as well.”