There has almost certainly never been a moment quite like the one that unfolded at Scotiabank Arena Monday night, where three members of a Spurs championship team met on the same floor, playing for different teams: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green for the Raptors, Tony Parker in town with the Charlotte Hornets.
Collectively they had 32 years in silver and black, seven of them together as three-fifths of the Spurs starting lineup. So stable was the Spurs environment that Green and Leonard — in their eighth and 10th seasons, respectively, were the young guys.
But that all fell apart last season in a year in which Leonard divorced himself from the team after playing only nine games due to injury, precipitating his trade to Toronto, along with Green. A chill between him and Parker was likely a contributing factor.
The Spurs’ loss has been the Raptors’ gain as Toronto improved to 4-0 with Green and Leonard on board after their 127-106 win over Parker’s Hornets.
After the buzzer, Green and Parker exchanged a long hug, as old friends might. Leonard and Parker didn’t interact at all, which probably tells a story too.
Parker left San Antonio as a free agent, looking for a fresh start in his 18th season and finding a soft landing, and one last pay day, as an older statesman coming off the bench for former Spurs assistant coach James Borrega. The need for a fresh start was probably connected to one last controversial season that created the urgency for the Spurs to trade Leonard and Green along with him.
Maybe it was the sight of old friends or maybe it was two full days’ rest, or maybe it was a desire to prove something, but Leonard looked as fluid and comfortable offensively as at any point in his brief Raptors moment as he scored 15 in the first half and 22 in the game on just 14 shots in only 31 minutes’ work. He shot 4-of-7 from three and barely broke a sweat.
“He’s still not back to where he was, but there are glimpses,” said Green. “Starting to get back to his rhythm.”
Green was excellent also, as he helped put the game away in the third with a pair of threes as he scored 16 points on eight shots while knocking down four threes on six attempts. Orchestrating it all was Kyle Lowry, who chipped in with 16 points (3-of-6 from three) and a season-high 14 assists against just one turnover.
The Raptors shot 57.5 per cent from the floor and 15-of-39 from deep and had 36 assists on 50 made field goals, but even more encouraging was the Raptors’ emerging defensive chops as they held Charlotte to 40.3 per cent from the floor and 7-of-23 from behind the arc through three quarters before letting the rope go a little in the fourth.
The Hornets (2-2) came to Toronto having made more threes than any team in the NBA and Kemba Walker having set an NBA record with 19 threes in the first three games of the season. The Hornets guard needed 22 shots to get 26 points and was just 2-of-7 from three — a season-low in both makes and attempts.
The Raptors’ game plan was very much to run Charlotte off the line and make life miserable from inside it and it worked — no easy feat given the league-wide increased emphasis on shooting threes in volume and the referees’ emphasis on making it harder for defenders to clutch and grab away from the ball.
“It was a high-scoring, free-shooting team coming in here,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “And we asked them to get out and contest and disrupt some of their rhythm stuff and we did a pretty good job of that.”
Again, Leonard is useful in this regard. On one play in the first quarter he chased down Hornet’s centre Cody Zeller on a fast-break, corralled the seven-footer while he had the ball inside the restricted area under the basket and forced him into a three-second violation. A moment earlier OG Anunoby — who the Raptors would love to emerge as Leonard’s understudy — blocked Walker step-back on a three-point attempt, and C.J. Miles blocked another triple a little later.
Normally, that kind of aggressiveness can spread a team thin elsewhere but between length and scheme and hustle, the Hornets had no room to breathe.
“It’s rotations, understanding who is the next man up, who is the help,” said Lowry. “…Swing, rotate, rotate. It’s all about communication and being on that rope.”
Lockdown defense, efficient offense, the ball being shared — it was the kind of effort the Spurs would have been happy with at their best.
“It reminds of a team I used to play on,” said Green.
It was just strange to see former Spurs doing it against former Spurs.
“It’s very weird, it’s very weird,” said Parker.
It’s been reported that a falling out between Parker and Leonard was one of the reasons for the Spurs breakup, with Parker accusing Leonard of malingering in his recovery from a quadriceps injury that limited Leonard to just nine games last season.
Parker wanted only to look ahead on Monday.
“I had 17 great years for myself in San Antonio,” he said. “And I focus only on the great times because we had a lot of great times, we won a lot of games. Last year was one of those years — we had injuries, but if you look all around the NBA there are a lot of injuries. We’ve been very successful and sometimes you take it for granted. We had a lot of great years so I’d rather focus on that.”
Leonard wasn’t available before the game, and was lifting weights until well into the night after the game.
It was almost surreal to see the no-drama Spurs as one of the league’s biggest soap operas, with Leonard, who carved out a reputation as a no-drama superstar, in the middle of it.
It was just as strange inside their locker room.
“It was very different for the organization, very different for me … going through it was weird, or strange,” said Green.
But one weird season in San Antonio has created an opportunity for a great one in Toronto. Parker and Leonard may have had a falling out, but Green and Leonard have brought Spurs’ traditions with them — a penchant for playing lockdown defence in the context of efficient offence.
It’s a winning formula, perfected in San Antonio and — so far — travelling quite well.