TORONTO — “That one had to sting a little bit,” Nick Nurse said Thursday, sitting at a black table on a podium at the Toronto Raptors practice facility just off Lakeshore Blvd., eyeing a teal mug he’d placed to his left.
The head coach was, of course, talking about the last time his team played Friday’s opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, back in early January — a frenetic, emotional, ruthlessly unwelcoming night for the Raptors in Texas.
It was an ambush. The Raptors entered lackadaisically, riding off a pair of easy mid-season home wins, and encountered a Spurs side — led by old friend DeMar DeRozan — with bad intentions. San Antonio was up 10 just four minutes in. They were up 20 six minutes later. Midway through the second quarter, as the Spurs ran their lead to 25, the game was essentially over.
It still stands as Toronto’s second-most lopsided defeat of the season, one that hurt just a little bit more considering it was Kawhi Leonard’s intensely built-up return to San Antonio, the city where he spent the first seven seasons of his career — winning a championship and NBA Finals MVP in 2014 — before he reportedly requested to play somewhere else last summer.
Leonard heard it from the crowd all night. They booed him in the lay-up line during warm-ups. They booed each of his 55 touches during the game. They booed him as he walked off the court with his dejected teammates after the embarrassing defeat. The fact that DeRozan went off for a triple-double, his first in 764 career NBA games, was a perfect piece of poetry to tie the entire experience together.
“I don’t think that you have that many in an NBA season that you say, ‘Oh, geez, last time we played Indiana, they got us.’ And you’re still mad about it a couple months later,” Nurse said. “But that one stung a little bit. And hopefully our guys are going to go out there and play with that kind of attitude to erase some of that sting.”
Here we are, nearly a couple months later, and the Spurs are in Toronto for the return date. DeRozan will play at Scotiabank Arena for the first time not as a member of the Toronto Raptors, a moment that will be bizarre, emotional, and adrenalizing all at once. The loudest cheers during Friday’s game will likely be given to an opposition player. The air will be just as charged as it was for Leonard’s return to Texas. Just differently.
“I think it will be a little more joyous tomorrow than it was in San Antonio,” Nurse said, smirking. “But I think at the end of the day, who the crowd cheers for, how loud they are and anything, shouldn’t affect our performance.”
But did it in San Antonio? Did that caustic atmosphere play a part? The Raptors are allowed to lose a game every now and then, and even lose them badly. But the utter impotence with which they played in San Antonio was nonetheless peculiar. Sometimes the Raptors just get beat. Sometimes they run into a hot hand. But it’s not often that the Raptors simply fail to show up.
Perhaps the only Raptor who looked even a little bit like himself in that game was Leonard, who led his team with 21 points on 8-of-13 shooting. Was it his best night? No. But it was far from his worst.
“I don’t really think it bothered him too much down there,” Nurse said. “I mean, did he play great? He was okay, right? He was okay. We didn’t play great. It wasn’t Kawhi’s problem down there. It was all of us — myself included.”
Thursday, Leonard was up behind that black table on the podium moments before Nurse was. He didn’t bring a mug; he brought a basketball, placing it at his feet after being dragged from the practice court to field banal questions about Friday’s game and answer them in that succinct, downplaying way Leonard does.
“Another regular season game after the all-star break. Obviously, want to come out and get a win,” he said. “It’s basketball. It’s two hoops, two teams trying to win.”
If anything of this earth affects Leonard, this isn’t it. His nature is a sober, undemonstrative one, both on the court and off. He’s clearly born with that stoicism, but Nurse feels some of Leonard’s experiences with the Spurs helped harden it. When you compete in an NBA Finals at 22, and perform so well you’re named the best player in the series, it’s tough to get too worked up about another regular season game, no matter how into it the fans are.
Nurse says Leonard’s competitive fire manifests itself in other ways. Like how any conversation between the two inevitably turns back to winning, and how the team can do more of it. Like the times when Nurse is coaching, urging a huddle of his players to attack this or defend that, and he can’t help but notice how intensely engaged Leonard is, making direct eye contact and nodding his head. Like the times when the huddle gets erratic, frenetic, disorganized, and Leonard is the one to speak up and tell the team to calm down.
Like when Nurse sat with Leonard a couple days after that demoralizing defeat in San Antonio, and said something to the effect of, so, that was a rough couple days. Leonard just shrugged his shoulders.
“He goes, ‘ah, I’m good. Let’s go and get the next one,’” Nurse said. “His meter doesn’t move too much. But there’s not a time when I’m sitting there in the huddle looking at him going, ‘Oh, geez, Kawhi’s in trouble. I can’t go to him.’ Or, ‘Geez, Kawhi’s half asleep. I’ve got to wake him up.’ It’s neither. In the huddles at halftime and pre-game, he is 100 per cent locked in.”
You can no doubt expect that from him Thursday night, when Toronto and the greater NBA world will be absorbed with the emotion and circumstance, while Leonard’s just out there competing, trying to win another game. And you can no doubt expect that from him until the Raptors season ends one way or another.
That unflappable psyche is one of Leonard’s most valuable and unique attributes, right along with his uncommon ability to impact the game at both ends of the floor. Lots of players can create on offence; lots of players can be shutdown defenders. Not that many can truly tune out the noise.
“My juices start going once the playoffs and stuff comes along again. Just competing and just being on a journey with the team, trying to complete our goal,” he said. “Going out every night, no matter who we’re playing, trying to give my 110 per cent effort. And once playoffs come, hopefully we’re the best team we can be, and keep striving to our goal.”