Raptors undone by Clippers’ depth in Kawhi’s return to Toronto

LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) protects the ball from Toronto Raptors centre Marc Gasol (33) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, December 11, 2019. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – It was an emotional Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena.

With the Los Angeles Clippers in Toronto, that meant Kawhi Leonard was going to receive his gigantic, 650-plus diamond encrusted championship ring and be honoured like no other returning former Toronto athlete had ever been honoured before.

And what a tribute it was.

It included a very cool re-enactment of the steps Leonard took when he hit “The Shot” in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers and ended with a bout of fake tears, a genuine smile and a hug with Kyle Lowry at centre court.

“It was great. It was a great moment,” said Leonard of the ceremony held for him. “[The Raptors] did a great job putting that together, having all the players out there and everyone waiting, standing there and presenting my ring. It was great.”

But beyond the pomp, circumstance and genuine emotion seen in the lead-up of this Wednesday-evening game between the Clippers and Toronto Raptors, the game itself was more indicative of a different aspect of the championship celebration Leonard was showered with: his championship ring itself.

As part of the design of every Raptors title ring is a custom inscription, and in Leonard’s case the logo in there reminds him to wear the gigantic piece on his middle finger.

“I have, like, an ‘Eff You’ symbol.”

This is pretty fitting, because as he soaked in the warm adoration of the Toronto crowd and appeared to genuinely enjoy the tribute his former team prepared for him, he and his new squad went out and figuratively stuck a big ol’ middle finger up to the same crowd and Raptors organization as the Clippers routed Toronto, 112-92.

Leonard finished with a team-high 23 points on an efficient 8-of-14 shooting from the floor, but even though this was a night that was basically entirely dedicated to him, Leonard wasn’t necessarily the reason why the Clippers were so successful.

As is becoming something of a norm when teams face the Raptors, the Clippers offence used their aggressive defensive schemes against them and moved the ball to the open man.

“I thought our passing in that first half was the best we’d had all year,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “Talked about it in shootaround, just let them come, look around, find your guy. We did it because of the traps and our guys were patient.”

In this regard, Leonard was absolutely fantastic as he would often calmly take double teams and dish out when needed, never forcing his offence.

“Seeing the game plan they were running – sending two to the ball with me and Paul [George], doubling on me on post-ups – when that happens I’m going to take my time and wait for an open shot to come. That’s what I try to do.”

Leonard finished with six assists on the evening, but more important than just the counting stat, the doubles he would take and then give the ball up so regularly Wednesday night spoke to a level of trust he has with his Clippers teammates, and for good reason.

“This is as deep a talented team as there is in the league,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse of the Clippers before the game. “They’ve just got players coming non-stop in off the bench.”

Yes, few teams in the NBA are as deep and talented as the Clippers are, meaning, as the Raptors found out, to be so aggressive trying to trap and contain just one or two guys is folly.

“We’ve got four guys that’s averaging 20 points a game right now,” said Lou Williams, a former Raptor who received his own, much smaller video tribute Wednesday. “So it’s kind of difficult to trap teams like that when you have that type of depth. Especially when you have guys who understand their roles and know the best ways to counter that.”

Williams finished Wednesday with 18 points – 13 alone in the second quarter – and he and Leonard were two of seven Clippers to score in digits on the night.

This overwhelming wave, as Nurse alluded to, of talent from all over the Clippers lineup was the real reason why L.A. did Toronto in, not just Leonard. It’s also probably a big reason why Leonard ultimately decided to choose the Clippers over the Raptors in free agency in the summer.

“On the basketball end of it I think he realized we’re a talented team and we had some really solid pieces and we did some pretty OK things,” Williams said of why Leonard perhaps chose the Clippers in free agency. “We were a 50-win team and he probably thought that he and Paul could be the pieces that he needs to get us over the hump.”

Adding superstar talent to a solid, deep roster is a pretty good recipe for success, as the Raptors learned with Leonard on their side last season.

Having both depth and talent is a luxury every team wishes they had. The Clippers do have it, and on Wednesday, as Leonard was receiving that middle-finger reminder of a ring, he and his team may also been sending a symbolic gesture to the rest of the league that they’re coming, and they’re coming hard.

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