Toronto has waited since the summer for tonight, readying for its chance to see Kawhi Leonard back at Scotiabank Arena. Had free agency played out differently, Leonard might still be delighting Raptors fans as they go about defending their 2019 NBA championship.
A massive media contingent was on hand for the LA Clippers’ shootaround Wednesday morning as Leonard prepares to face his old team tonight (7 ET, ESPN). Leonard opted to sign with the Clippers on July 6, six days after free agency 2019 opened in the NBA. In talking with reporters today, Leonard shared that his move from Canada to California was hardly an easy one.
“I gave [re-signing with Toronto] a big consideration,” Leonard said. “I took my time, I didn’t hurry up and make a quick decision. I talked to the front office in detail. It was a hard choice to make.”
The Raptors are expected to give Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP, his championship ring tonight. Toronto put up billboards outside the arena, one of which read “Fun Guy In Town” with a photo of Leonard celebrating the 2019 championship, and another one reading “Board Man Gets His Ring” that shows Leonard holding the Finals MVP trophy aloft.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 11, 2019
Leonard, who endorses New Balance, had a “Thank You Toronto” billboard put in downtown Toronto and explained why he did so in his comments Wednesday.
“(The fans) were amazing last year. They rolled with us through the ups and downs,” Leonard said. “We were down every series pretty much and they stuck through it with us. They brought great energy to every game and it helped us. So that’s my thank you to them.”
Kawhi on New Balance billboard: "(The fans) were amazing last year. They rolled with us through the ups and downs. We were down every series pretty much and they stuck through it with us. They brought great energy to every game and it helped us. So that's my thank you to them." pic.twitter.com/o3ucwFPPCy
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) December 11, 2019
It is hard to imagine Raptors fans booing Leonard after his play sparked the team to it’s greatest season ever. Still, Leonard is remaining realistic about what to expect from his Toronto homecoming.
“I mean there will be some cheers but definitely I think more boos because they want to win the game,” Leonard said. “They’re not going to be cheering for a player that’s on the opposing team.”
Any concerns Raptors fans have about Leonard’s load management getting in the way of him suiting up tonight can also rest easy. Clippers coach Doc Rivers confirmed Leonard will play against the Raptors, but said he hasn’t spoken to his star forward about the reception he’s likely to get.
“I don’t talk to players about stuff like that,” Rivers said. “It’s so personal. You never know how they handle it, but it’s got to touch you in some way.”
The Clippers saw George get booed in his return to Indiana on Monday, but Rivers doesn’t expect Raptors fans to give Leonard the same kind of treatment.
“He fulfilled his promise,” Rivers said. “I don’t know if he promised a championship, but he fulfilled it anyway. I think it will be an amazing reception.”
Kawhi shares his thoughts on the Raptors' championship ring 💍 pic.twitter.com/cW4rtmjNVF
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 11, 2019
Leonard said he has only seen pictures of Toronto’s championship rings, which are the biggest in league history. Each one contains more than 650 diamonds.
“I think it looks nice,” Leonard said. “I want to see it in person so it can come full circle.”
In his lone season with Toronto, Leonard averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists during his 60-game regular season that featured plenty of load management. In the 2019 playoffs, he upped his numbers to 30.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg and 3.9 apg in leading Toronto past Golden State in The Finals.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.