LOS ANGELES – When Doc Rivers was talking about blood transfusions, he was being metaphorical – or at least we thought.
The context: The Los Angeles Clippers head coach was asked about the relationship that Kawhi Leonard – his new franchise cornerstone – would have with his former Toronto Raptors teammates, having won a championship together.
“He has a different bond with them,” said Rivers.
“He danced in the locker room. That’s a rarity, that you have an opportunity to do that with guys. That group, whoever was on that team, it’s like a blood transfusion. They’ll be connected for the rest of your life with that team and with that city, no matter what you do or where you go, that’s just the way it is.”
But ahead of the Raptors’ first game against their old teammate since he left them in free agency this past summer, you had to wonder if Rivers was being a little more literal.
The game wasn’t two minutes old when Pascal Siakam found OG Anunoby deep in the paint on a cut to the basket. Also, there was Leonard and he did what Raptors fans have seen him do countless times: see ball, take ball.
He stripped the ball with his massive mitts, knocking Anunoby – one of the few players in the league in the same category as Leonard physically – to the floor and sent the Clippers the other way on a fast break.
The only problem was that in the process Leonard had raked Anunoby across the face, poking him in the eye, drawing some blood and leaving him dazed in the paint. The third-year forward, who is enjoying a breakout season, had to leave the game and was unable to return with his eye swollen shut.
Well, at least Leonard felt bad about it.
“He just cut down the lane, I went for the steal and ended up hitting him in the face,” said Leonard afterward. “I ended up getting the ball and going down (the other way). I hope he’s OK, though, I’m going to text him and see how he’s feeling.”
Not great was the only answer. Anunoby was last seen leaving Staples Center with a thick bandage over his left eye with plans to see an ophthalmologist in Los Angeles on Tuesday before the Raptors leave for Portland, their next stop on their five-game road trip.
Certainly, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse wasn’t happy about losing his best defensive player so soon – and with no foul being called on the play to boot.
“Guy lost both his contacts and cut his eye open with blood,” said Nurse. “Are you kidding me?”
Hey, no one said playing against Leonard would be easy.
But even down Kyle Lowry (thumb), Serge Ibaka (ankle), Pat McCaw (knee) and Anunoby, the Raptors were fine with that. They came to play hard, to complete an improbable sweep – winning back-to-back games against the ostensible co-favourites to capture the NBA title Leonard won with the Raptors in his single season in Toronto.
Remarkably, the Raptors took the game into the fourth quarter in a position to win. Their path there was unpredictable and unconventional as two teams sharing an NBA arena for home games, but hey, L.A.
The Raptors pushed the heavily favoured Clippers to the limit. Down four with just over a minute left, they had two chances at the rim that didn’t go – a Siakam layup that rolled in and out and a Chris Boucher drive that got blocked by a fingernail. More shots rolled in and out than seemed fair for the undermanned group trying to win in the most unlikely circumstances.
The Raptors eventually fell 98-88 to drop to 7-3 on the season and 2-1 on their road trip, but could only have grown in the eyes of anyone that watched.
“Our guys played their guts out, we totally outplayed them, I thought,” said Nurse. “We were playing harder, we were executing better, we were creating a lot of problems for them, just not quite enough.”
Everyone chipped in. There wasn’t much choice, given the walking wounded.
A Matt Thomas three-ball late in the third and then a runner at the buzzer had the Raptors leading L.A.’s “other” team 78-73. Stranger still? Thomas, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Boucher all had more points (eight, nine and 13, respectively) than Leonard’s 12. Leonard came into the game averaging 29 points a game.
Even down the stretch, the Raptors’ harassment of their old teammate wouldn’t stop. They pressed him at the three-point line and drove him into traffic where more often than not, big Marc Gasol was waiting to help. Nothing was easy.
The Raptors were trying – well what choice did they have, really – to replicate the success they had enjoyed in their unexpected upset of the Lakers on Sunday night. Once again, Nurse dug into his bag of tricks, junking up defences, doubling liberally, forcing non-superstars to beat his star-free roster.
Leonard was the target, and it mostly worked as Toronto held its old teammate to 2-of-11 shooting and forced him into nine turnovers to go along with his nine assists and 11 rebounds.
“We went obviously full guns on all the coverages on him to make life difficult for him and we did a good job on him,” said Nurse. “But he got some good transition buckets in the fourth, made some big shots for them when they needed them, which is what he does.”
Everyone who took the floor could step on the wood with the confidence that they would have a chance to make an impact. All eight players who saw the floor – other than Anunoby – scored at least five points, none more than Siakam’s 16, as the Raptors were held to 40 per cent shooting, but still had a chance down the stretch.
The most remarkable numbers? Fred VanVleet and Siakam playing 45 and 44 minutes, respectively, on the second night of a back-to-back. Everything was left on the floor.
The script was a little bit different than their unlikely win against the Lakers. Defensively they were everywhere, flying around, blocking shots at the three-point line or collapsing into the lane to dig into Leonard. Hollis-Jefferson stepped up against Leonard in place of Anunoby.
One carryover? Boucher picked up where he left off against LeBron James and the Lakers, hitting on his first three shots, including a pair of threes for eight first-quarter points to go along with a steal and a block. The Raptors held the Clippers to 6-of-21 shooting from the floor in the quarter and led 23-15. Who knows? If Boucher hadn’t been in foul trouble so much – he was limited to 22 minutes and finished with five fouls – the outcome might have been different.
The Clippers got untracked in the second quarter, even though Leonard didn’t, as the Raptors were determined to turn their former teammate and the 2018 Finals MVP into a passer, letting someone else beat them. And it was working. The Clippers led 51-46 at the half and Leonard was 0-of-5 from the floor for four points – all at the line – while adding four assists.
There wasn’t much the Raptors could do about another former teammate, Lou Williams – who won the NBA’s Sixth Man Award during his one season with the Raptors – as he snaked his way to 14 first-half points.
The Raptors were spreading it around: of the eight players that hit the floor, all scored at least one bucket before half.
Something Rivers predicted: “They’re a confident team. I call it the championship rub. You win a title and can lose five guys … (and) guys believe they can win. Because they have won and they know how to win together. So you see them playing that way as a group.
“You can’t break that. They can be down 20 and you’re not going to break that confidence. You have to keep fighting against teams like that.”
Leonard may have drawn first blood, but his former teammates – to a man – proved that they have plenty of heart. Championship heart.
But then again, Leonard knew that.