TORONTO, ONT – If any people came to boo Kawhi Leonard on his return to Toronto, it was sure hard to hear them over all the cheering.
Leonard received his championship ring to deafening applause and chants of “MVP! MVP!" before the Los Angeles Clippers visited the Raptors on Wednesday night.
Earlier, the three-time All-Star and two-time NBA Finals MVP said he was expecting a mix of cheers and boos from Toronto fans who watched him lead the Raptors to a six-game victory over Golden State in June.
“There’ll be some cheers but definitely, I think, more boos because they want to win the game,” Leonard said at shootaround. “They don’t want to be cheering for a player that’s on the opposing team.”
Leonard's former teammates, along with coaches and team executives, gathered in a circle at center court before tip-off to greet their former star, who signed with the Clippers in free agency.
Leonard embraced each player in turn before guard Kyle Lowry presented him with his ring. After slipping it on, Leonard raised his arms to the crowd and waved.
“It’s always great to see guys get a ring, especially when they’re on your team now,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the ceremony. “This is a different one, though. It’s a really cool one because he was the leader of the group, coming back to get it in front of a crowd. I’ve never experienced it like this. This is special. It’s cool.”
Back in Toronto for the first time since his free agency meeting with the Raptors in July, Leonard said he experienced “flashbacks” of that championship run as the Clippers drove to the arena for morning shootaround.
“The ride was fun,” Leonard said of his season in Toronto. “I had a great time last year with the coaching staff, the front office, and the players. It was a great experience.
“Obviously it was different playing here for a whole country, they’re all going for this one team.”
Leonard averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 24 playoff games with Toronto. He hit a series-winning 3-pointer in Game 7 against Philadelphia in the second round, a shot that bounced off the rim four times before dropping.
Rather than re-sign with the Raptors, Leonard chose to team up with friend Paul George and head home to Los Angeles, signing a three-year deal with the Clippers.
“I’m happy to be there, having a great time,” Leonard said. “These guys are a great team right here. We’re striving for a goal and I’m having a great time.”
Toronto acquired Leonard and guard Danny Green from San Antonio in July 2018, sending franchise icon DeMar DeRozan as part of the package to the Spurs. Leonard said the decision to leave the Raptors wasn’t easy.
“I took my time, I didn’t hurry up and make a quick decision,” he said. “I talked to the front office in deep detail. It was a hard choice to make.”
Leonard is averaging a team-leading 25.1 points in 18 games for the Clippers. He’s missed seven games, including Monday’s win at Indiana, the second game of a back-to-back, sitting out because of a sore left knee.
Rivers said he hadn’t spoken to his star forward about the reception he'd get from Raptors fans.
“I don’t talk to players about stuff like that,” Rivers said. “It’s so personal. You never know how they handle it, but it’s got to touch you in some way.”
The Clippers saw George get booed in his return to Indiana on Monday, but Rivers didn’t expect Raptors fans to give Leonard the same kind of treatment.
“He fulfilled his promise,” Rivers said. “I don’t know if he promised a championship, but he fulfilled it anyway. I think it will be an amazing reception.”
Before Wednesday, Leonard had only seen pictures of Toronto’s championship rings, which are the biggest in league history. Each one contains more than 650 diamonds.
“I think it looks nice,” Leonard said. “I want to see it in person so it can come full circle.”
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