The NBA is the league of shiny toys.
The team with the most or the best is usually the one holding the shiny trophy at the end. It is not a league of upsets or underdogs banding together to play above their talent.
In this league the big dogs eat.
The biggest dog the Raptors have ever had took the floor at Scotiabank Arena with red T-shirts draped over every seat and the smell of fresh paint in the air a few minutes before 6 p.m. ET Wednesday night, getting to work with assistant coaches Jim Sann and Jamal Magloire in advance of a 7:30 p.m. tip-off against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kawhi Leonard started with some free-throw shooting, progressed through some post-ups, then some medium-range standstill jumpers, adding complexity and distance as he went. After about 20 minutes he was gone. He’d broken a sweat, but not cracked a smile.
The face never changed. Not when he was introduced last in an elaborate pre-game ceremony, fit for royalty, if royalty was a Drake fan. The crowd roared with four months of pent-up fervour, but Leonard looked like a man reading through his credit card statement.
Not that he was oblivious.
“It felt great,” he said of the reception. “They gave me some more energy, I felt the support, and it only fuelled me to play better.
His expression didn’t change when he missed his first three shots. It didn’t when Kyle Lowry gave up a wide-open fast-break layup to make sure Leonard could break the ice as a Raptor.
And Leonard looked the same when he responded by knocking down a couple of jumpers in the opening moments of his first regular-season game since Jan. 9, back when he was edging towards divorce with the San Antonio Spurs over how to deal with a thigh injury that limited him to nine games last season.
The Raptors would love to see him crack a grin. That’s obvious. There was an air of trying too hard with the production around his first game with his second NBA team. Not only was Leonard the last Raptor introduced – ahead of Lowry – he was the subject of the first goofy feature on the Jumbotron.
The whole thing screamed “Please like us; please stay!”
Who knows, maybe he will.
But the most telling window into his inscrutable soul came on his first day of work.
“By winning games,” said the pending free-agent acquired in the off-season deal that sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. “This is how you get star-calibre players to want to come here and play.”
Leonard is a superstar. Because he’s here the Raptors can win a lot of games. Big ones too.
While it’s silly to draw conclusions based on one night of work – as Lowry said afterwards: “It’s game one, bro. It’s Game 1.” – or even one month of employment, the Raptors looked poised to win and maybe win big.
Would that be enough to make Leonard smile on the inside?
You only get one chance to make a first impression and in theirs the Leonard-era Raptors handled the Cavaliers easily and predictably, 116-104.
Having played just one “real” exhibition game since Oct. 2, Toronto looked a little turgid at times offensively – although they still shot 49 per cent from the floor and 14-of-33 from deep – and there were some sloppy defensive possessions, even if Cleveland only shot 40 per cent from the field. But the game was never in doubt. Toronto led by 13 at the half and 15 heading into the fourth as Leonard looked his most comfortable in the third – scoring nine of his 24 points. He finished 9-of-22 from the floor with 12 rebounds and a pair of assists.
He didn’t paint a masterpiece, but the frame was there.
“It’s still early,” said Leonard. “It’s only the first game. We had a lot of mistakes on the defensive end that we could correct. We’ve just gotta keep pushing. Our offence was also stagnant at some times tonight. But our skill level and focus and us playing really hard tonight got us the win.”
More encouraging, the Raptors’ best player was Lowry – who hasn’t been smiling much either since his best friend (DeRozan) was traded. But he promised he’d be ready to play when the lights came on and he most certainly was, scoring 27 points on just 12 shots – aided by going 5-of-6 from deep – to go with eight assists.
“Kyle was awesome tonight,” said Raptors first-year head coach Nick Nurse, who is now 1-0 in his NBA career.
Lowry has long been the Raptors’ engine. With Leonard there is the promise of a lot more horsepower.
“I thought Kawhi, he created a lot of opportunities for himself …” said Nurse. “You see that the ability is there for him to get shots and I think some nights, those are going to be big numbers.”
Watching Leonard go through his pre-game workout was Raptors special advisor Wayne Embry. The NBA Hall of Famer counts Oscar Robertson as one of his closest friends and won titles playing with Bill Russell and the Celtics. He has battle scars from Wilt Chamberlain. As an executive with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the late 1980s he had his heart ripped out by Michael Jordan more times than he’d rather count. He watched LeBron James play in high school. His standards are high.
He watched Leonard all through training camp in Vancouver and had one word for the Raptors starting small forward.
That’s why this season feels different than any other in Raptors history, even among the bountiful half-decade (and counting).
The Raptors have the shiniest toy, the biggest dog.
Even with a nearly a full year of rust, Leonard could make smaller wings disappear on post-ups, could create comfortable looks at any point in the clock and knock down his share of jumpers.
His defensive reputation precedes him. Open layups get missed when he’s in pursuit; passes don’t get attempted. He and OG Anunoby double-teamed poor Kevin Love midway through the first quarter and Cleveland’s remaining marquee player basically handed the ball away, leading to an Anunoby fast-break dunk.
Leonard is fully healthy, but allows that his game is a long way from the MVP-level it was in 2016-17 when he finished third in the voting and many educated opinions feel he should have won it.
“I can only see what’s in front of me right now,” he said. “It’s nothing [where] I’m looking back saying, ‘I want to get back to that level.’ It’s about right now and what I need to do to be the best player for the Raptors and that’s what my focus is.”
Wednesday was Game 1 and perhaps the most important statistic is that Leonard looked comfortable playing a game-high 37 minutes. What he will bring to the table this season can’t be bought on a shelf. The NBA is built around superstars, and the Raptors have one.
“The game’s evolving to where everyone’s touching the ball and there’s a little more flow,” said Cavaliers veteran marksman Kyle Korver who is learning how to operate without James this season. “But at the end of the day the superstars, everybody wants them to have the ball, and you’ve got guys now who average triple-doubles, and who put up these incredible numbers, because they have space to operate and they’re just incredibly talented … role players need superstars and superstars need good role players. It’s what makes the game go ’round.”
Which is why Raptors president Masai Ujiri empowered general manager Bobby Webster to trade DeRozan – an all-NBA talent who falls short of the superstar threshold, particularly on defence. Even one guaranteed year of Leonard – the NBA’s premier two-way maestro – was deemed worth it.
The Raptors are deep and talented and mostly in or near their athletic prime. Their role players are elite and Lowry is one of the best point guards in the game. Now they have Leonard, a player who makes professional basketball players miss because he’s in their presence and who can comfortably slow the game to his pace at the other end too. He makes the whole team stand taller.
“It means a lot, just looking at him as a professional,” said Raptors big man Jonas Valanciunas who looked sharp on opening night, contributing 12 rebounds and three assists. “He does all the small things, just especially for the young guys, he is bringing that mindset, how you need to work, how you need to act, how you expect to win. Especially for the young guys, but everybody can learn from him.
“He’s a great dude.”
And for one season – and who knows after that – he’s a Raptor.
Toronto has a one of the NBA’s shiniest toys and are underdogs no more. Game 1 was good; the next 81 promise more and at that point – health willing – Leonard and the Raptors will be just getting started.