Raptors expecting hostile reception for Leonard in return to San Antonio
'Should be fun' says former Spur of 1st game back in old haunt
Two days after being serenaded by chants of "M-V-P!" in Toronto, Raptors star Kawhi Leonard is about to return to an arena where fans won't be nearly so kind.
San Antonio's AT&T Center is the stage Thursday for the Raptors' most anticipated game so far this season. A chorus of boos, the expected soundtrack.
"Give me some popcorn, I just want to watch it," Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge joked with a San Antonio TV station this week.
Leonard spent seven seasons with San Antonio, but the relationship soured in a bizarre last season that saw him play just nine games due to a quadriceps injury. He arrived in Toronto with Danny Green in the off-season's blockbuster deal that sent DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to the Spurs.
The 27-year-old Leonard returns on the heels of a career-high 45 points in Tuesday's win over the Utah Jazz. He's scored 20-plus points for a career-best 14 straight games. The two-time NBA defensive player of the year is also averaging career highs of 27.3 points and 8.2 rebounds a night.
The Raptors are 28-11 and a half-game behind Milwaukee for first in the league, while the Spurs are 21-17 and eighth in a jam-packed Western Conference.
While Spurs fans will no doubt voice their displeasure over Leonard's departure, he insists he's looking forward to the game.
'Going to be fun'
"It's going to be fun," Leonard said. "Everybody's anticipating the game. Things like that only get me better for the long run, so it's going to be a good game."
And as Raptors coach Nick Nurse pointed out, if there's any player unflappable enough to withstand a choir of 20,000 spiteful voices, it's Leonard.
"He's not very emotional in general. He doesn't say much on the floor. He doesn't complain to referees. He doesn't do anything except for just play basketball," Nurse said. "So I would imagine that he'll have a really good chance of handling it."
Leonard's sister Miesha, who runs the Instagram account "kawhileonardofficialfanpage," claimed the family had received threats over his move to Toronto.
"It's crazy people are sending death threats to my family over Kawhi being with the Raptors and not playing on the Spurs," she posted. "Who raised you? God got us!!!"
Hostile environments are part of sports, Nurse noted.
"It'll be a pretty rough environment on Kawhi, I imagine. I don't know about Danny," the coach said. "You go through those things a lot. It's something that, in college basketball, I used to go through a lot when you'd go on the road, people would really ride certain players and things like that. It doesn't happen as much in the NBA because it's such an infrequent occurrence.
"I think it'll be an electric atmosphere. I think it'll be a volatile atmosphere. And I think it'll be good for us."
Nurse added that sheer mental focus of playing can serve as barrier against outside noise.
"You get lost in the game itself and you don't really hear a whole lot that's going on," Nurse said. "And you're just playing basketball. You're in a zone of just trying to focus on what you're going to do."
In San Antonio, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters he hoped Spurs fans treated "everybody with kindness and respect. We always have in the past so we'll see."
Popovich said he viewed Leonard's return as "any other team, player," and has no regrets how his tenure in San Antonio ended.
"We move on in life," Popovich said. "We're not going to redo what's happened in the past in any way, shape or form. It's of no consequence at this point, it does no good to go backwards and talk about this, that or the other.
"And one of the reasons is you guys will interpret it any way you want anyway. Doesn't matter what we say, you're going to say whatever you want, so that's a waste of our time."
"I hope [fans] react just as well and the same that they do with any other ex-teammate that comes back," Spurs guard Patty Mills said. "He's been a great teammate, a great friend to me, he deserves that. I'm hoping that it will be a warm welcome back to San Antonio, a place where he has won a championship and grew up here and people have treated him well."
DeRozan, meanwhile, told reporters Wednesday he hadn't thought much of Thursday's reunion. Feb. 22 — the day DeRozan returns to Toronto, undoubtedly to a warm welcome — is the day circled on his calendar.
"Emotional? I don't know, I never experienced an emotional game," DeRozan said. "I couldn't answer your questions about it right now. I don't feel like it's going to be an emotional game, but that's right now."
DeRozan hasn't talked with Ujiri
The 29-year-old DeRozan hasn't spoken to Toronto president Masai Ujiri since the deal that left him devastated. He has no reason to, he said. But the final chapter of his nine-year career as a Raptor certainly didn't play out as he would have scripted.
"I wanted to break every single record that was there, and be the first to do every single thing. I always expressed that," DeRozan said. "Sometimes you don't get that in life, the opportunity to marry the woman you felt was the woman of your dreams."
DeRozan won't get to face his good friend Kyle Lowry. Battling a lower back ailment, Lowry will be sidelined for the ninth time in the 10 games.
"I wish he was healthy, able to be out there and play, compete against him," DeRozan said. "One of my all-time favourite point guards I ever played with, toughest competitor I ever played with, so I wish . . . he was able to be out there."
The four-time all-star also reeled in the bold proclamation he made on Toronto forward Serge Ibaka's online cooking show "How Hungry Are You?"
DeRozan, served a plate of fried worms by Ibaka in the episode, promised to score 40 or 50 on the Raptors.
"I think them worms had me all tripped out," he said Wednesday.
Green, who is expected to get a warm reception by Spurs fans, was looking forward to San Antonio.
"Haircut. I'm going to get my hair cut, get some food, might see some friends and family, might be doing a podcast later, we'll see," he said.
Green has not only proved to be far more valuable to the Raptors than simply the "other guy" in last summer's trade, he's also become the go-guy guy on all comments related to Leonard. Wednesday's media session at BioSteel Centre was no exception.
Does his longtime teammate have something to prove in his return to San Antonio?
"I think he has something to prove all year, not just there," Green said. "He had taken a year off, kind of, not being able to play. I think every night he's going out with something to prove. I don't think it's just because of location or the team.
"Obviously, it's a team we both used to play for so I'm sure he's going to want to do well, especially there. But I think his mindset is no different than the others: He wants to go out and play his best basketball."