Encrusted with more than 640 diamonds, the Toronto Raptors’ title ring is said to be the most expensive ever produced for an NBA champion. Inside is a maple leaf featuring a ruby. On top is a diamond-studded Toronto skyline.
Standing at midcourt inside Scotiabank Arena during a pregame ceremony welcoming last season’s NBA Finals MVP back to Toronto for the first time since he left for the Clippers as a free agent, Kawhi Leonard studied its features Wednesday. Slipping it up to the knuckle of his right index finger and feeling its weight, he broke the stone-serious expression that is his game-day custom, smiling broadly. He embraced Kyle Lowry, the Raptors point guard Leonard won last season’s NBA title alongside, turned to the crowd and raised both hands to a roar of approval.
“A great moment,” he said.
Leonard responded by sucking the energy out of the building over his 32 minutes of playing time.
The All-NBA forward zipped passes to open shooters when the defense tilted in his direction, finishing with six assists. When a second defender was slow to rush his position, he rose and fired a shot, finishing with 23 points in a 112-92 Clippers victory. He did not overwhelm. But playing the game at his own speed, he was efficient, the kind of performance that endeared him to these fans last season.
“What I loved about him was he was patient,” coach Doc Rivers said. “He just waited. He was just waiting. He kept accepting the traps, kept making the right play.”
Leonard is famously stoic, even around teammates, but Paul George, who scored 13 points, noticed Leonard was “extra locked in and extra focused” at the team’s shoot-around.
Leonard was not wrong for thinking he might receive boos. With each return to San Antonio, the home he left on awkward terms in 2018, Leonard has been booed mercilessly. Only two days before, George received similar treatment in Indiana, where he played his first seven seasons.
“It’s basically they look at us as bad guys when things don’t go the way they want it to go,” George said. “That’s just the narrative on those stories when a player dictates where he wants to go.”
But Leonard’s one remarkable season here has turned a foreigner from Southern California into a Canadian folk hero, and Wednesday’s attention was focused all on him — from the cheers that enveloped him before tipoff, to the defenders that surrounded him after.
Leonard could not always get to his spots offensively because of Toronto’s first-half traps, but made eight of his 14 shots in a welcome sign: Since missing three games with a sore knee in mid-November, the career 49% shooter had made less than 40% of his shots in five of his last nine games entering Wednesday.
Only twice in their 10 games together have both Leonard and George shot better than 40% from the field, and George missed nine of his first 10 shots against the Raptors (16-8). The Clippers (19-7) got by because of the strength of their role players. Lou Williams scored 18 points, Montrezl Harrell had 10, Maurice Harkless added 14 and Patrick Beverley finished with 11 in 19 minutes before leaving the game only three minutes into the second half after suffering a concussion while running into Raptors center Marc Gasol.
The Clippers’ lead grew to 20 only to be trimmed to five later in the third quarter but their switch to a zone defense, together with Leonard’s seven points and three assists in the third quarter, made their lead unassailable for much of the fourth quarter. With three minutes to play, entire sections had emptied. Silence replaced the roars.
A receiving line of Raptors players waited for Leonard after it was over, and then he retired to the locker room. Moving the championship ring between his fingers, he took a closer look.
“I just think he understands, and I understand, how loyal and how much this city really loves their basketball team,” said Williams, the Clippers reserve who played one season in Toronto. “I thought I did something by winning the first sixth man in their franchise history.
“This guy made history by winning their first NBA championship. He should be one of the first jerseys to go up in the rafters.”