TORONTO – Kawhi Leonard appreciates the support, Toronto, but it’s a bit too early.
He’s not the first player Raptors fans have broken out the MVP chants for, but it’s a short list. There was Chris Bosh way back when and more recently DeMar DeRozan.
And now we have Leonard, in Toronto for a good time, if not necessarily a long time.
Which is perhaps why the sold-out crowd at Scotiabank Arena got the chants going when Leonard stepped to the line in the second half of the second game of the regular season.
They have to take advantage when the opportunity presents itself, even if it’s nearly two weeks before Halloween. And Leonard leading the Raptors (2-0) to a hard-fought 113-101 win over the Boston Celtics – everyone’s (justifiably) sexy pick as the emerging superpower in the Eastern Conference – seems as good a time as any, even if it caused Leonard to raise his eyebrows (metaphorically).
“It’s a little too early,” said the typically taciturn Leonard. “It’s Game 2, but you know, I appreciate the support. I know they’re excited about us winning the game tonight, and I appreciate it.”
Etiquette aside, it’s not like the fans were imagining things. Leonard has played 11 NBA games in the past 16 months and two since Jan. 9.
And if this is what he looks like rusty, good luck when the gets to peak condition and has developed a comfort level with his new team, city and country.
Leonard finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds and got better as the game went on in a contest that was more like Greco-Roman wrestling than boxing – everything was tightly clenched. Boston led by seven after the first quarter and four at halftime, but a 15-point third quarter from Leonard provided some breathing room before the Raptors ran away with it with a 12-2 spurt in the final 2:53.
Leonard missed a share of shots that looked makeable – hence the 10-of-25 line – and struggled with some turnovers as he’s yet to quite figure out Raptors spacing, but against a Celtics team as deep and talented as any that doesn’t have Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in uniform, it was pretty evident that if the Raptors and Celtics end up battling for Eastern Conference supremacy, Toronto will have the single best player.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve seen from pre-season Game 1 until now is he can get a really good, on-balance shot just about any time he wants to,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “But he can get a good shot, he can kind of bully you to get to the rim if he wants to and I think you’re going to see him shoot a lot more free throws than he’s shooting.”
It may be a little surprising that two games into his Raptors career he’s shooting 25 times (he shot a team-high 22 times in the season opener) and commanding the ball down the stretch of close games, but it’s telling too: Leonard didn’t come here to ease his way in.
There’s an urgency to his game, it shows and it’s hard not to respect.
“He’s playing well,” said Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, excellent again in support as he finished with 18 points on eight shots to go with six assists and six rebounds without a turnover. “He’s a guy who knows his shots, and he got to his spots a lot tonight. … He played extremely hard … he really was aggressive. That’s the kind of thing we’re gonna need for the whole season.”
Leonard was hardly alone, which was encouraging. Serge Ibaka drew into the starting lineup to match up with mobile Celtics centre Al Horford and provided 21 points on 14 shots while Danny Green – the other newly acquired San Antonio Spur – offered 14 points on eight shots, his biggest a corner three with 2:29 left that put the Raptors up 104-99.
On the next possession Lowry drew one of his two fourth-quarter charges and came back and drained a three that put Toronto up eight and the clinch was finally broken.
It’s hard to read what Leonard’s thinking at the best of times but based on his actions he clearly wanted to let the NBA community – gathered around the hearth of a rare (for the Raptors) ESPN game – know that he was ready to step out of his injury-infused cocoon from a year ago.
(Officially, he denied such motivation: “I play hard every game.”)
But whatever his inspiration he signalled his intention on his first defensive possession when he swiped a pass from unsuspecting Celtics forward Gordon Hayward who – coming off a year lost to injury himself – seemed shocked that Leonard could cover that much ground in that little time.
A few possessions later, Leonard deflected a pass to disrupt the Celtics and then forced guard Jaylen Brown into an air ball before Toronto earned a shot-clock violation and a turnover. The effort was contagious. Ibaka closed out hard on Celtics guard Terry Rozier forcing a brick and Pascal Siakam scared another from Celtics power forward Marcus Morris. One of the pivotal plays of the fourth quarter came when Leonard and Green combined for a chase-down block on Jayson Tatum – Green got the credit for it, but only because he touched the ball first.
The Raptors held the Celtics to 40.4 per cent shooting, matching their effort in the home opener against Cleveland. Keep that up and they’ll lead the NBA in that pivotal defensive category. Leonard, raised on the defensive orthodoxy of San Antonio, still thinks they weren’t good enough.
“We played well and got stops when we needed to, I just felt like we coulda done better,” he said. “They got a lot of wide open looks. With a great team like that, they’re not gonna always miss it. They got a lot of second-chance points, as well, from us not rebounding the ball. It’s Game 2 for us, you know, just something to build on and move forward with.”
Leonard inspires belief, and when you realize that he’s not close to where he wants to be, it can make you giddy.
“[My] lungs feel good out there,” said Leonard who has played a sturdy 73 minutes in two games so far. “What I’m trying to do is just get my legs under me, get used to playing these NBA games, getting hit, running up and down the floor, guarding these great players throughout the minutes that I am out there. It’s still gonna take time.”
There is only so much of that. Leonard’s free agency will always be looming over what seems like a very promising Raptors season, which perhaps explains why the Scotiabank Arena crowd is determined to show love whenever possible.
Leonard can’t help but notice.
“You know, just coming here playing on the road back in the past, I could see how live this arena is and how amped up they get for the Raptors,” he said. “[So] it doesn’t surprise me, their commitment to the team.
“The only thing that really surprised me is the MVP chants so early, but like I said, I understand the excitement and where we’re trying to get to this year and what they expect.”
Those MVP chants?
Better get used to it.