TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard was challenged by his head coach to show some fire and when it mattered most, he came through.
Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said the NBA all-star appeared unmotivated over the last four games.
"I just think he’s got to get a little bit more engaged, right?" Nurse said Monday morning. "I always say go out there and ‘destroy some people’ or whatever it is. You know? You’ve got to get motivated."
Leonard insisted he wasn’t aware of Nurse’s comments before the game, but welcomed the challenge and motivation.
"Even if you are going out there and having 20 points and you win, you want the coach to motivate you and to tell you what you are doing negative on the floor that is causing the team (issues)," Leonard said.
With both teams trading baskets and tied 125-125 in the dying seconds of the fourth quarter, Leonard took a jump shot that went off the backboard and into the basket.
The performance drew praise from Nurse.
"He was good. I don’t know if he was dominating, but he was better than he’d been," Nurse said. "I liked his aggressiveness to go get it, even though he knew they were collapsing a lot."
It appeared as though Leonard was still in a funk when the Raptors (42-16) struggled to find their pace in the opening quarter. He committed three of the team’s five turnovers in the first as they trailed Brooklyn 29-21. Joe Harris scored 15-of-24 points in the opening quarter for the Nets.
Toronto chipped away at Brooklyn’s lead in the second. Trailing 42-34, the Raptors went on a 10-2 run with their best players subbed back into the court.
Marc Gasol, making his home debut after being acquired for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles and a 2024 second-round draft pick last week, made a basket in that run. Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Siakam also recorded baskets to help Toronto keep it close.
Gasol had 16 points off the bench with 11 of those coming in the fourth quarter. He added a pair of assists and some key defensive stops in the fourth.
"I had butterflies in my stomach," Gasol said when hearing the ovation from the crowd as he checked into the game for the first time. "It kind of made me feel like a rookie again."
D’Angelo Russell had a team-high 28 points for the Nets (29-29), who made 20 three-point baskets.
The Raptors improved to 14-1 against the Nets since Jan. 1, 2016. With their 42nd victory, the team set a franchise high for most wins before the NBA All-Star Game.
Note: The Raptors, already with a short bench due to the Gasol trade, were without the services of Fred VanVleet. The guard is out for three weeks with a thumb ligament injury. Nurse said he was surprised about VanVleet’s injury and hopes he won’t miss too many games. VanVleet was injured on Saturday in the Raptors’ 104-99 win over the New York Knicks.