By late afternoon Friday, waves of onlookers undeterred by thick fog and occasional raindrops hurriedly claimed seats near San Antonio’s famed River Walk. They had come to watch a holiday tradition.
At dusk, hundreds of ribbons of lights in the trees above the waterway turned on, and a parade of boats followed.
At nearly the exact same time three miles east, AT&T Center hosted the second-annual gathering of what has become another civic ritual: booing Kawhi Leonard.
Returning to the town where he began his NBA career for the second time since forcing his way out in 2018, Leonard was jeered each time he touched the ball and never could quiet the crowd, needing 23 shots to score 19 points in a 107-97 Spurs victory.
“I didn’t make nothing of it,” Leonard said. “Felt like a normal away game.”
In so many respects, this was anything but normal compared with what the Clippers had come to expect from themselves during their seven-game winning streak.
Forward Paul George, an effortless scoring machine since debuting two weeks ago, made two of 11 field goals for five points. After scoring a layup in the game’s first minute, he missed his next nine shots over his next 29 minutes before adding a three-pointer late. His teammates couldn’t compensate, shooting 39% and attempting only 13 free throws.
“I didn’t really find a good rhythm,” George said. “Still just trying to figure out playing out there with my guys.”
Perhaps most surprisingly, after three fourth-quarter comebacks in the last eight days, the Clippers (14-6) could not summon another one against a San Antonio (7-13) team owning the NBA’s second-worst fourth-quarter net rating.
“They just got into us, took us off rhythm,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “Unless we were just going to win in a defensive battle, I didn’t see [a comeback] coming.”
Spurs fans who had watched 10 losses in the last 11 games reveled in seeing one of the Western Conference’s top teams falter, led by the star who spurned them. Leonard, who won the 2014 NBA Finals most valuable player in his third year in San Antonio, may have left for Toronto in July 2018 following a falling out with the organization that led to his trade, but animus among some here remains.
He was booed mercilessly last season while visiting as a Raptor and one of the loudest cheers Friday came after Leonard’s second-quarter layup attempt was blocked from behind by center Jakob Poeltl — part of the trade package Toronto sent to San Antonio for Leonard. Poeltl checked out afterward to a standing ovation. There were chants of “Kawhi-baby.”
“I don’t think it affected Kawhi at all,” George said. “I don’t understand it. It was more booing than cheering.”
The paths of Leonard and his former franchise have diverged dramatically since the trade. Leonard won his second championship and Finals MVP trophy last season and, as a free agent, moved closer to his Southern California roots by signing with the Clippers in July. The slow start by the Spurs, meanwhile, has triggered talk of whether the franchise’s 22-year playoff streak could be in jeopardy.
There were jitters midway through the fourth quarter too, when the Spurs’ 16-point lead was down to 11 after a three-pointer by George with six minutes to play.
Flickers of a comeback could be seen.
But on the very next possession, a bad omen arrived: DeMar DeRozan, another part of the Leonard trade package, drilled his first three-pointer since Dec. 26, 2018 to push the lead back to 14. Fans went home happy.
“They came in here with an edge, more of a thirst,” guard Patrick Beverley said, “and it showed.”
Clippers guard Rodney McGruder missed Friday’s game but expressed optimism that the right hamstring strain he suffered Wednesday isn’t as severe as initially feared.
“I’m all right,” McGruder said at shootaround. “Just taking it day by day.”
McGruder said he tweaked the hamstring in the first half at Memphis and by halftime felt “kind of tight.” His steal and ensuing full-speed leap for a fastbreak layup with 6:55 left in the third quarter made his discomfort worse. The 6-foot-2 guard left the game, did not return, and there was concern initially.
“I didn’t know what happened, I just felt something not normal,” he said. “It’s a feeling I haven’t felt on the basketball court before.”
Asked whether he could miss a week, McGruder said, “hopefully not,” adding he trusted the team’s medical staff to get him back on the court.