LOS ANGELES – It might be a stretch to say the Kawhi Leonard is missing Toronto and his time in Canada now that he’s settled in at home with the Los Angeles Clippers.
But the “here for a good time, not a long time” Raptors hero made an impression up north, and it certainly seems that his one season with the Toronto Raptors made a lasting impression on the Southern California native, even if he hasn’t got his championship ring yet.
“The guys, the journey, you know what I mean?” Leonard said when asked about what has stuck with him after his whirlwind 12-month stint in Toronto that ended with his second NBA title in June and him opting to sign with his hometown Clippers in July.
“Also, the country, the city, it was amazing. Just so much, you can keep going on and on.”
It’s not like Canadians let him forget anyway.
“I was just telling someone the other day, it’s shocking to me how many Canadians do live here (in L.A.) or are just visiting,” he said after the Clippers practised in advance of Leonard’s reunion game against the Raptors on Monday night (10:30 p.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE and Sportsnet NOW).
“Just walking around, people say, ‘I’m from Toronto or Winnipeg’ or these different cities in Canada. You never know unless you go play up there and they recognize your talent from playing with the Raptors.”
Then again, some harsh winter weather aside, Leonard said he was never too trepidatious about playing in Toronto, which came to pass after he was traded to the Raptors by the San Antonio Spurs.
His former Spurs teammate and Toronto-area product Cory Joseph had set the table for him.
“I never went in with a negative mindset,” he said.
“Playing with Cory Joseph in San Antonio, him being from that area in Toronto, I knew what the city brought, just going out there, playing games, hanging out with him and his friends, him taking me around, showing me the city.
“I always felt positive with the trade and the front office. I knew it was great already with (Raptors president Masai Ujiri) being in there so it was never a negative thing, I was always open-minded about it.”
It all worked out quite well, although the Raptors would have loved to have had a chance to bring Leonard back to defend their title.
Instead, it’s the Clippers who are eagerly awaiting a chance to win their first NBA championship.
If they do, Clippers coach Doc Rivers believes Leonard’s time in Toronto will be a significant factor.
If possible, Leonard is playing at an even higher level than he did last season with the Raptors, or even in his last two healthy seasons in San Antonio when he finished second and third in the league’s MVP race.
Through seven games he’s averaging what would be a career-high 29 points a game, but even more impressively a career-best 5.4 assists, which – on a per minute basis – is almost double his career-best.
To River’s eye, it’s a carry-over from the playoffs when Leonard seemed to trust his teammates the deeper into the post-season the Raptors went.
“It’s funny we noticed – at least I noticed – that each round of the playoffs he got better and better,” said Rivers.
“You could see it. First round he was going for it, second round a little more, third round he started playmaking, by the Finals he was really playmaking. Winners adapt, and I thought he adapted to what they were playing and he’s brought that back this year.
“We’ve had the advantage of him doing that or learning that in Toronto (so) now we get that package. His passing has been sensational for us.”
There is a chance that Leonard will gain a significant target by the time he suits up against Toronto on Monday night.
Rivers said there is a possibility that Paul George – Leonard’s hand-picked teammate who the Clippers acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder to guarantee Leonard signing with them and not staying in Toronto, or signing with the Los Angeles Lakers – could make his debut against the Raptors.
George has been out recovering from a pair of shoulder surgeries in the off-season.
If so, it will make the reunion much more of a challenge for the Raptors, who announced Saturday that Kyle Lowry will be out for two weeks minimum due to a small fracture in his left thumb, and Serge Ibaka will be out indefinitely after spraining his right ankle.
Both injuries were sustained in the Raptors’ win over New Orleans on Friday night.
The absence of two the Raptors’ best players may take the edge off the matchup with the Clippers, which was poised to be difficult enough given Toronto has to play the revamped Lakers and another former teammate – Danny Green – on Sunday night.
But Leonard said he’s looking forward to it anyway, business considerations aside.
“It’s a former team I won a championship with, but it’s any other game,” said Leonard. “(But) it’s going to be fun to see the guys again, and just congratulate them and be able to shake hands and compete.”
No one is expecting anything but warm feelings.
“It’s not like he left on bad terms,” said Rivers. “Really. It’s one of those ‘leave good’ situations, not one of those ‘leave awful’ situations.
“Let’s be honest, in our league, it’s usually the other way. He’s had the rare benefit of leaving in happy state. That’s rare. Has it happened? I don’t know. If it has, it’s rare.”