Raptors fail to make Leonard, Powell remember the good times in Toronto

Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) handles the ball between Toronto Raptors guard Malachi Flynn (22), forward Scottie Barnes (4) and centre Christian Koloko (35) during first half NBA basketball action in Toronto on Tuesday, December 27, 2022. (Frank Gunn/CP)

It would be nice to be able to say: “I told you so.” Or, “see what you’re missing?”

Nothing against Norm Powell or Kawhi Leonard, two well-loved former Raptors of varying seniority who were back to face their old team as members of the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, but when old co-workers move on you want them to do well, but maybe not rub it in too much. 

Maybe, just maybe, you can remind them of how good they had it, and allow them just a tinge of regret at moving on. 

But through no fault of their own, there’s not much chance of that. 

Leonard is exactly where he wanted to be when he left Toronto before the championship parade had even been fully cleaned up in the summer of 2019. He’s playing near his home in Southern California for one of the league’s best owners, in one of its best markets, on a team that – when fully healthy and engaged – is one of the league’s true title contenders. 

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And while Powell was never in a rush to leave Toronto, he wasn’t opposed to the trade that sent him to Portland in exchange for Gary Trent Jr. a couple of seasons back. He got the role he wanted, the contract he wanted – the Trail Blazers gave him a five-year deal for $90 million – and last season he got traded to the Clippers with a chance to earn his second ring. 

Powell is a happy man. He’s from San Diego and his family is at every home game in Los Angeles, which is just up the highway.  He’s spending time with his nieces and nephews and he’s helping train his mom’s dog. The weather’s nice, and he’s enjoying the way Clippers head coach Ty Lue is varying his role: sometimes spreading the floor for the Clippers’ stars, other times as the go-to guy with the Clippers’ deep second unit. 

Were Leonard and Powell glad to be back in a familiar place with fond memories? Sure. 

Any interest in trading places? No chance. 

“I don’t [miss the weather],” said Powell of his Toronto return. “I do miss the city, for sure.”

The city misses him judging by the standing ovation he got when the Raptors played a video tribute for him early in the first quarter. It’s hard not to reflect. 

“When we landed here and we were driving to the city down to the hotel, you start to think about all the moments and the memories you had here,” said Powell who was the 46th pick of the 2015 draft. “All the ups and downs and the fans and organization sticking with me through all of it. Post-game, it was just a great full-circle moment for me to be where it all started. And to come back and play in front of the fans again, it was amazing.”

Even the notoriously stoic Leonard was feeling nostalgic. Faced with back-to-back games in Detroit and Toronto coming out of the Christmas break, Leonard – who is still building up to full strength after his ACL injury in the 2021 playoffs – chose to play in Toronto rather than Detroit. 

“It’s always great memories coming in this arena,” said Leonard. “And if I was going to sit a game I’d rather give the fans in Toronto a chance to see me play again.”

What Raptors fans saw were two former favourites on a team heading in a different direction than the one they used to play for. Leonard and Powell had to feel grateful for how things have shaken out.

With the 124-113 win the Clippers came out on top for their seventh time in nine games and improved to 9-3 with Leonard and Paul George in the lineup, and 21-15 overall this season. 

The Raptors? They are still looking for their first three-game winning streak of the year and lost for the 11th time in 14 games, falling to 15-19 on the season. 

Powell did his thing as he scored 22 points on 14 shots, adding three steals and three assists in 23 minutes off the bench. Leonard barely got himself out of third gear, it seemed, as he put up 15 points and counted eight assists in an easy 32 minutes. Clippers big man Ivica Zubac had 23 and 16 against the undersized Raptors, while Paul George added 23 as Los Angeles shot 15-of-38 from deep. 

The Raptors were led by Pascal Siakam’s 36 points as he shook off a slow start to try and single-handily keep Toronto in it during the second half where he scored 27 points. Gary Trent Jr. had 20 off the bench and Scottie Barnes had 17 points and 13 rebounds. Toronto shot just 6-of-23 from deep in a game that wasn’t very close after the mid-point of the third quarter. 

It didn’t help the Raptors cause that Fred VanVleet left the game early in the third quarter and didn’t play the rest of the game, this after having already left in the first half to have his back stretched. Toronto was trailing by five when VanVleet left the game and was never really in the game once the Clippers got rolling in his absence. 

VanVleet finished with four points and seven assists and was 0-of-3 from deep, which is a bit ominous given that Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said that his team’s prolonged shooting slump – cracked for a moment when Toronto went a season-best 19-of-37 from three in a win over Cleveland before the Christmas break – was due to health issues players like VanVleet were having.  

“I didn’t try to make too big a deal out of this while it was happening,” said Nurse before the game. “[But]  I don’t think our guys felt great physically. There were some issues there that were not helping their ability to make shots. And I think those issues have been cleared up. So yeah, I was happy about the shots and I’m happy they feel better.”

Oh well. 

Regardless, there was a lot going on. Every time Leonard returns to Toronto – and this was his first time here since he got his championship ring in December of 2019 – it’s a moment. Raptors fans can reasonably lament that he left after one season – and who knows maybe part of Leonard does too after failing to make a Finals appearance since he left Canada for California – but the championship banner he was so essential to winning will hang forever, as they say. 

But it’s clear that Leonard has never looked back. He might have given up an excellent chance to win a second title in Toronto had he stayed one more season – the 2019-20 team had the NBA’s second-best record without him, after all, and narrowly missed returning to the Eastern Conference Finals. 

And things haven’t been entirely smooth in Los Angeles, between playoff losses, coaching changes, and injuries. But now? 

“The sky is the limit,” said Leonard. “We have to focus on the little things, details and making sure that everybody stays healthy and playing team basketball. It’s a deep roster, everyone can shoot, create plays for themselves so we all have to go out there with a focus and mindset of winning the game and making plays for each other.

No one was making more of them than Leonard who counted a season-high assist total as he patiently picked apart the Raptors’ determination to take his scoring off the table with a steady diet of double teams. 

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And no one benefitted more than Powell, who operated freely and comfortably in the space that the attention Leonard was drawing created. 

“I just wanted to come out and get a win, whatever it took,” said Powell, who had 11 points in the first half, as the Clippers led 60-56, and then 11 points in the final four minutes of the third quarter as Los Angeles blew the game open. “I definitely had the (game) circled. I looked forward to it. It was fun competing against these guys. Talking to them throughout the game, it’s always fun times. It makes you think back to all the practices you had, going against Fred, after-practice drills and 1-on-1s. Definitely good to get the win.”

For Leonard and Powell, it was a welcome homecoming, but a reminder that they’ve landed in a very good place.

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