LOS ANGELES — The Toronto Raptors identified a strategic scheme before Monday’s game, and it was to force Kawhi Leonard to get rid of the ball as much as possible in their first meeting since the star chose to join the Los Angeles Clippers in the offseason.
On the road and playing on the second night of a back-to-back, Raptors coach Nick Nurse felt a strategy of sending constant double-teams at Leonard would give his team the best chance of winning.
It almost worked as the defending champs stayed within striking distance for much of the game. Leonard was held to 12 points on 2-for-11 shooting, but found other ways to remain a factor by pulling down 11 boards and distributing nine assists in a 98-88 victory over his former team at Staples Center.
“You’re not going to play well every night,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said of his star’s performance after the game. “Yet, he almost had a triple-double still. He almost had a quadruple-double,” playfully pointing out the nine turnovers Leonard committed.
Well before the Raptors were able to implement their defensive scheme against Leonard, there were a few teams plotting to put forth a recruiting scheme to lure him from Canadian soil.
But with Leonard being so tight-lipped and virtually impossible to read — and the fact that the Raptors were rolling in the playoffs — identifying an effective recruiting strategy was challenging until seeing how the Raptors’ season played out.
If the Raptors were bounced early in the playoffs, rivals teams believed without a doubt that the two-time Defensive Player of the Year would be exiting the situation. But beyond that scenario, everything else was murky.
It Toronto had fallen short in the NBA Finals, would Leonard feel the desire to run it back for one more season or would he bounce? And what about if the Raptors won it all? Would Leonard feel he delivered and that it’s time he makes his move toward home, or would he feel an obligation to defend the title?
These were the burning questions teammates, rival executives and fans didn’t have answers to.
So what was the scenario the Clippers believed gave them the best chance at landing Leonard?
“I would be lying to you if I said when that ball was bouncing on the rim, I wasn’t yelling for it to fall off. I will say that much,” Rivers told Yahoo Sports, referring to last year’s Eastern Conference semifinal Game 7 when Leonard hit the game-winner to beat the Philadelphia 76ers advance to the conference finals. “But once [Toronto] got to the Finals, I figured go ahead and win it, and we’ll see what happens after that. I just wanted him to come to us, to be honest with you.”
It was anybody’s guess to what Leonard would do next after celebrating with the Raptors after defeating the Golden State Warriors, one of the all-time great championship teams in NBA history.
The Lakers and the Clippers only knew they had a chance, thanks in large part to locale. In the end, the scenario of delivering on lofty expectations along with a strong desire to be near home won out.
“I felt like Kawhi would fit our DNA that we already had established,” Rivers told Yahoo Sports. “With him and Paul [George], you would have gotten them even if they didn’t fit our culture, but it’s rare when you go out and get a free agent that fits the character of your team already. So Kawhi fits right in with Pat Beverley and [Montrezl Harrell]. Just tough-minded, defensive, grinding guys. And Paul George is the same. It was one of those things where we got free agents that are stars, but they fit the DNA of our old players. It’s a pretty cool thing.”
As great of a one-year run it was for Leonard with Toronto, he wasn’t in much of a mood to go walking down memory lane Monday night.
"It's over now," he said following the game. "We won. Like I said before, I had a great time there. But it's the next chapter now. I can't live in the past or just be so excited that I still won [an NBA championship]. I'm with a different team and a different unit, and they want to have that same feeling and I do as well. I'm a Clipper right now.”
That’s the ultimate scenario Rivers and the organization had hoped for.
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