As Kawhi gets his ring, Raptors lack margin for error in loss to Clippers

Former Toronto Raptors and now LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, receives his 2019 NBA championship ring from Raptors' Kyle Lowry prior to NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard is always full of surprises. It’s a by-product of his poker-faced public image. Whenever he does anything outside those lines it catches you off guard.

Hence the ‘Fun Guy’ memes and the ‘Board Man Gets Paid’ t-shirts and the whole cottage industry that has built up around trying to figure out what someone who has no interest in being figured out is really like.

The latest installment?

It turns out that the personalized message that Leonard had engraved on the inside the gaudy goblet-sized ring that the Toronto Raptors rewarded the members of their 2019 championship team was a little out of the ordinary too.

“I have like, an FU symbol,” he said after he led his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers to a comfortable 112-92 win over his old team, the Toronto Raptors. “It reminds me to put it on my middle finger.”

He later clarified the symbol was like the middle finger emoji you might see on Twitter, for example. Or in a text to someone you either love or hate.

So now you know.

Leonard being Leonard it might be – quite literally – a reminder that his second NBA ring is worn on his middle finger, beside the one he won with the San Antonio Spurs in 2013.

Or it might be a statement to the Spurs and everyone else who doubted the severity of the knee problems that cost him nearly all of the 2017-18 season.

Anyway. Add Kawhi’s F.U. emoji to his legend.

He got the ring in a much-anticipated ceremony that took place at Scotiabank Arena to mark his return to Toronto after leaving for the Clippers in free agency only weeks after closing the Raptors championship parade with his ‘Ha, Ha, Ha,’ finish.

The ceremony was great. How good would the game have to be for the best moment not to happen before it even started?

The ring presentation was pretty cool.

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The sold-out crowd at Scotiabank Arena arrived early as requested, even earlier than required for a rare 7 p.m. tipoff. That meant that when Leonard stepped on the floor for the first time since leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship he was greeted by a swell from the crowd that only hinted at what was to come.

No one was 100-per-cent sure what was going to happen. History has shown Raptors fans don’t appreciate being snubbed, even though all Leonard did was get traded here, win a title with one of the most spectacular playoff performances in NBA history and then take less money to go home.

Even Leonard had allowed for the possibility that there might be some hard feelings given he chose not to run it back in Toronto, putting a sudden chill on the Raptors’ post-championship glow in a hurry. He was expecting some boos. There were none.

Instead there was a playoff-like wave of love. Players and coaches from both teams watched every moment of Leonard’s considerable highlight video, which culminated with Leonard famously having the last laugh at the Raptors’ championship parade.

“It was great. It was a great moment,” said Leonard. “They did a great job putting that together, having all the players out there and everyone waiting, standing there and presenting my ring. It was great.”

As his former teammates, coaches and the executive and ownership groups gathered in a semi-circle around the Raptors logo at mid-court, Leonard greeted them all while saving his biggest smiles and hugs for Kyle Lowry, who presented him with the ring.

Their inside joke appeared to be Leonard wiping away a pretend tear. Instead it was Leonard pretending that he was blinded by the bling. Then again he might have been.

“We just laughed out there,” Leonard said. “I knew he was going to present me the ring before. Memories went through our head.”

And everyone else’s too. Emotion was thick.

Then he raised his arms to acknowledge the crowd… and that was it.

There was no speech.

“Kawhi thanks you,” Raptors announcer Herbie Kuhn assured everybody.

“It kind of puts you back in those spots when you were on the floor or the locker room talk when you were going into the game and after the game, watching those highlights,” said Leonard. “It was a special season for us, for me, for the whole city and country. I’m glad we’re able to win. It was a blessing.”

And then it was very much down to business, as Leonard predicted correctly this time.

“I’m happy to be back, excited to get the ring tonight, but we’re here to play a game,” was Leonard’s pre-game take. “That’s how I feel.”

The perfect evening for everyone involved on the Raptors front would have been Leonard having his moment and the Raptors having the last laugh. Everyone but the Clippers would have gone home happy in that case.

Well, they’ll always have the ring ceremony. The Raptors led after the first quarter and were in the game until midway through the second quarter – they trailed by three with just under seven minutes left in the half. But the Clippers finished on a 23-8 run to take 64-46 lead into the half. They had it to five late in the third before the Clippers closed the period with a 12-0 run to push the lead to 17. Toronto never challenged in the fourth.

When Leonard left the Raptors to join the Clippers, he wasn’t only going home, he was joining one of the most potent lineups in the NBA, featuring fellow MVP candidate Paul George and a Swiss Army knife of options after that.

Leonard was his typical efficient self as he finished with 23 points on 14 shots while adding five rebounds and six assists in 33 minutes. His running mate Paul George was limited to 3-of-14 shooting but the Clippers are loaded. The Raptors’ biggest challenge was Lou Williams as the veteran shooting guard came off the bench and scored his 18 points in bursts in the second and third quarters and was plus-29 in his 33 minutes.

The loss dropped Toronto to 16-8 as it lost its fourth game in five starts and third straight at home.

Toronto was led by Pascal Siakam’s 24 points while Norman Powell chipped in 22, but the Raptors shot just 36 per cent from the floor and 8-of-36 from three with Lowry and Serge Ibaka as the main culprits – they shot just 1-of-16 combined on all their attempts as they struggle to find their form after missing 11 and 10 games, respectively, with injuries.

“I’ve had two good games and the rest have been s—, to be honest,” said Lowry. “Once I get back to where I was at the beginning of the season, it will be great. Right now, I’m just trying to work my way in and trying to figure it out, and get better and get better over time. But right now, I’m nowhere near where I want to be physically and where I need to be.”

With Lowry and Ibaka sputtering, there was no magical comeback that would have made for the perfect home-crowd Christmas gift.

When Leonard (and former Raptor, now-Laker Danny Green) left this past summer, they didn’t leave the Raptors a desperate, flailing tea but what Leonard took with him was Toronto’s margin for error. The Raptors aren’t going to beat many teams – let alone elite ones powered by Leonard – when Lowry and Ibaka can’t score or when Fred VanVleet – who missed his second straight game with a knee injury — isn’t available to bail them out.

Leonard made the Raptors worse when he left, and the Clippers better when he showed up. It showed Wednesday night. It doesn’t affect the bond they have off the floor, but it sure does on it.

“As far as us winning the championship, it pretty much comes full circle now, being able to get the ring and see where the hard work and stuff came from,” said Leonard. “It’s more than that. It’s just a journey. For me, as far as playing for the city, the chapter closed once I came over to the Clippers. Still love the city, those guys on the team, the players, the coaching staff, still have love for them and I wish them the best.”

They could use more than their old teammate’s love, blessings and best wishes.

But at least they have rings and memories.

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