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Welcome back: How NBA standouts were received in their returns

These 18 players have all been in the spotlight for a return game in recent years

From NBA.com Staff

Take a look back at some notable, recent player returns in the NBA.

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2019-20 season

Russell Westbrook

What Happened: For 11 seasons, Russell Westbrook gave Oklahoma City his all. He became an eight-time All-Star and 2017 Kia MVP with the franchise. So, it was no surprise when the organization executed his return game to perfection on Jan. 9, 2020. When announcing the starting lineup, a remarkable tribute video played on the jumbotron before Westbrook’s name was called and fans gave the city icon one of the most rousing ovations this season. Westbrook said he felt like home afterwards.

Paul George

What happened: George’s “era” in Oklahoma City wasn’t exactly marked by much playoff success (three total playoff wins in two first-round series). But George was a beloved player in his time with the Thunder and fans made sure he knew that on Dec. 22, 2019 when he came back to town. George received loud cheers when he was introduced pregame and OKC had additional reason to cheer at the evening’s end as the Thunder upset the visiting LA Clippers.

Kawhi Leonard

What happened: It was hard to imagine anything but an outpouring of love for Leonard in his Toronto return … and that’s exactly what he got. The man who led the Raptors to the 2019 NBA title (and joined elite company in being named Finals MVP) was adored by the Toronto crowd on Dec. 11, 2019. Leonard got a touching pregame tribute, received his 2019 championship ring and then led his LA Clippers with 24 points in a romp of a road win.

Anthony Davis

What happened: Pelicans fans had plenty of pent-up frustration with Davis they wanted to get out as he made his trip back to New Orleans on Nov. 27, 2019. Davis, however, wasn’t bothered in the least by their boos as he burned his former team for 41 points, had a critical steal and a pair of game-sealing free throws in a 114-110 victory.

Mike Conley

What happened: Good feelings flowed as Mike Conley, who spent his first 12 seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, made his trip back to Tennessee on Nov. 15, 2019. He said after the game the emotion of the moment caught him off guard and somewhat affected his play. That much seemed to be true based on the box score: the usually efficient Conley had 15 points (on 5-for-19 shooting), four rebounds and three assists in a loss.

Kristaps Porzingis

What happened: There was no love lost between Knicks fans and Porzingis, who asked for and received a trade to Dallas last January. New York fans got a measure of revenge, though, as the Knicks won this game (on Nov. 14, 2019) and the Nov. 8 matchup in Dallas to sweep the season series. As for Porzingis, he finished with 20 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in the defeat.

Derrick Rose

What happened: Rose had made previous return trips to Chicago in 2016 (with the Knicks) and 2017 and ’18 (with the Timberwolves). This one, however, felt different as he was playing for a division-rival team (the Pistons) and was doing so early in the season (Nov. 1, 2019). The former Kia MVP winner finished with 23 points and seven assists, but the Pistons ended up losing the game.

2018-19 season

Jimmy Butler

What happened: Minnesota nice was not in effect when Butler returned to take on the Wolves on March 30, 2019. Minnesota’s fans were still smarting from the way Butler forced his way out of town early in 2018-19 and booed him all game long. It was all for naught, though, as the Sixers won and Butler had a solid overall game (12 points, 13 rebounds, five assists).

Isaiah Thomas

What happened: Few players in recent Celtics lore are as beloved as Thomas was during his stint there. He never played against Boston as a member of the Cavs or Lakers and had to wait until March 18, 2019 to get his return game in Massachusetts with Denver. He had a quiet night (zero points, two assists) on the court performance-wise, but basked in a tremendous amount of love from Boston fans no matter what.

DeMar DeRozan

What happened: After nine seasons in Toronto, DeRozan had become the team’s all-time leading scorer and among its best-ever in several other categories. In the summer of 2018, the Raptors sent him to the Spurs for Kawhi Leonard. DeRozan’s return to Toronto on Feb. 22, 2019 was one of the season’s most anticipated dates. Although his squad lost, DeRozan was adored by the crowd as he finished with 23 points, four rebounds and eight assists.

Blake Griffin

What happened: From the Slam Dunk Contest victory to All-Star appearances to playoff runs, Blake Griffin was at the forefront of the Clippers’ success during their “Lob City” era. The Clippers stunned Griffin in trading him to the Pistons midway through the 2017-18 season and this marked his first game against the Clippers in L.A. He was no doubt up for the game on Jan. 12, 2019, finishing with 44 points and eight rebounds in Detroit’s 109-104 victory.

Kawhi Leonard

What happened: Spurs fans are a loyal bunch, but if you do them wrong, their quickly affection goes by the wayside. Leonard got a first-hand look at that when his Raptors came to San Antonio on Jan. 3, 2019. He was booed early and often that game as the Spurs were fueled by the crowd’s emotion and prevailed 125-107. Leonard finished with 21 points and five assists while DeMar DeRozan — whom the Spurs traded Leonard for — logged his first career triple-double (21 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists).

LeBron James

What happened: What a difference a championship can make when it comes to a return game. James first returned to Cleveland in 2010 (with Miami) and was treated like public enemy No. 1 that game. His return on Nov. 21, 2019 was much more pleasant as he was cheered longingly and the team showed a video tribute to his career (which included the Cavs’ run to the 2016 title). As for this game, James finished with 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers won 109-105.

Gordon Hayward

What happened: From 2009-17, the Jazz watched as Hayward grew from Draft pick to an NBA All-Star (in 2016-17). He jilted the Jazz in the 2017 free-agent summer for the Celtics and Utah fans were itching to let Hayward know what they felt about that. After a gruesome leg injury halted Hayward’s 2017-18 campaign after one game, he finally returned to Salt Lake City on Nov. 9, 2018. Utah fans booed him all game as he fared decently (13 points, seven assists) and the Jazz won the game.

2017-18 season

Zach Randolph

What happened: The short list of most beloved players in Grizzlies franchise history undoubtedly has Randolph’s name on it. Perhaps no player better personified the “Grit and Grind”-era and his departure via free agency in 2017 for Sacramento was a sad one in Memphis. But, there was nothing but love for Randolph on Jan. 19, 2018: he got a video tribute and a pregame standing ovation, finishing with four points and six rebounds in a 106-88 Grizzlies win.

Carmelo Anthony

What happened: Anthony embodied an era for the Knicks in the early 2010s and his return to Madison Square Garden on Dec. 16, 2017 was one of the most anticipated games that season. A video tribute to his career and a huge ovation from the crowd followed, but the night was forgettable for he and his Thunder teammates. Anthony scored 12 points and was shut out in the second half as New York romped past Oklahoma City, 111-96.

Paul George

What happened: George made it known in the summer of 2017 he was not long for Indiana, so the team obliged and dealt him to Oklahoma City. That exit didn’t mean there weren’t hurt feelings on the Pacers’ side, though. George rose to stardom with Indiana and his return on Dec. 13, 2017 was an emotionally-charged one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. While he struggled stats-wise that game — 12 points on 3-for-14 shooting — Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams overpowered Indiana in the Thunder’s win.

DeMarcus Cousins

What happened: Through all the ups and downs together, Kings fans and Cousins forged a strong bond in their 6 1/2 seasons together. His return game on Oct. 26, 2017 was filled with overwhelming support and love with a standing ovation during pregame introductions. While there was a smattering of boos, too, they were hard to hear after Cousins scored after winning. Overall, he dominated his old team (41 points and 23 rebounds) to power a 114-106 comeback win.

Tony Allen

What happened: Known as ‘The Grindfather’ during his time with the Grizzlies, Allen was the driving force behind the defense-first mentality Memphis embraced in its “Grit and Grind” heyday. Allen spent seven seasons (2010-17) with the Grizzlies, amassing All-Defensive Team honors in six of those seasons. His return game on Oct. 18, 2017 featured a video tribute and a lengthy standing ovation. He didn’t score in the game, but had two rebounds and two blocks in the New Orleans Pelicans’ 103-91 loss.

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