LOS ANGELES?--?This was not a reunion game.
That was evident early, when the visiting team stared down a familiar face and played up to the competition ever so scrappily. This was a we’ll-show-you game, with the Toronto Raptors demonstrating to Kawhi Leonard that they’re the defending champs and he is, with all due respect, no longer part of that equation.
And so, although it was ultimately a triumphant night for Leonard because, after all, the LA Clippers managed the 98-88 victory, the Clippers did so in spite of him for the most part. What a coincidence that Leonard’s first less-than-stellar game with his new team came against his old.
But the beauty of this, from the Clippers’ standpoint, is Leonard won’t be a solo star for much longer. He won’t see as many double-teams, as he did constantly against the Raptors. If his shot doesn’t fall, and it went clankety-clank Monday at Staples Center, he will be bailed out. And the turnovers --?he had nine, more than triple the number of baskets he scored --?will undoubtedly be reduced because someone is coming to rescue him from regular ball-handling chores.
Yes, Paul George, after sitting out the first two weeks of the season while mending from summer shoulder surgery, is ready to check in and make the Clippers whole.
He’ll travel on this upcoming two-game trip to Houston and New Orleans and, because it’s a back-to-back and Kawhi doesn’t do those, George could debut Wednesday while Leonard sits. It’s all fluid, but all signs point toward the much-anticipated tandem making its debut this week.
“He’s going to be a big piece,” Leonard said. “He’ll take a lot of attention. Then we’ll have to figure it out again.”
Through 10 games, eight of which he played, Leonard felt like he was in Toronto all over again, meaning, getting all the respect from the opposing?defense. He managed to overcome that quite well, averaging nearly 30 points and scoring more in fourth quarters than anyone in the NBA. But the Raptors were more relentless and smarter than other teams partly because they obviously have the Leonard scouting report memorized from last year, and they frustrated him.
He shot 2-for-11 and missed all 3 of his 3-pointers, taking the hard route for his 12 points along with 11 rebounds and nine assists. A mixed bag, for sure, but not up to his high level.
“He’s not going to play well every night,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “He just got a triple-double, though. Almost a quadruple-double.”
It goes unspoken, yet is very evident, that the Raptors are anxious and determined to show the league that they’re still a championship contender without Kawhi. The cold hard numbers are supporting this notion; they’re still living in the attic of the East at 7-3 and two nights ago toppled LeBron James and Anthony Davis without starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, both dealing with injuries. They may be shorthanded at the moment, yet the heart of a champion beats within Pascal Siakam, freshly named Eastern Conference Player of the Week, tough point guard Fred VanVleet, and a group of hungry youngsters trying to make their name.
What better way to emphasize this point by giving the Clippers and especially Leonard all they could handle? The Raptors did this by playing with a spirit until the very end, when the Clippers simply outlasted them in the final minutes.
“As soon as I walked across half court, they’re trying to get the ball out of my hands and sending an extra defender,” Leonard said about Toronto’s defensive approach. “It’s going to get my teammates better. They’re going to do it at times in the playoffs, and they’re going to knock down the wide open shots, and that’s what wins games. They did a great job on me?tonight by?sending an extra body, and I’m glad they did because it’s going to make my team better.”
For his part, Kawhi was characteristically stoic in this first meeting with the Raptors. Before the opening tip, he touched fists with just three former teammates; business as usual. There was little to no chatter during the game and hugs were saved until after the buzzer. He’s not one to luxuriate on memories, no matter how glorious.
“It’s over now,” he said of the 2019 championship run in Toronto. “We won. It’s the next chapter. I can’t live in the past. The team is different for them and me. They want to have that feeling and so do I.
“It’s fun being able to compete with the guys you were with last year. That’s pretty much it. We have a goal for ourselves to come out and win (a title), so that’s what my approach is to the game.”
Leonard is rightly looking ahead, to the very near future when George suits up. Finally, this will be what he envisioned when he convinced the Clippers --?demanded, actually --?that they trade for George first before signing as a free agent. He and George are similar players bringing similar skills and impact; George actually finished higher in last season’s Kia MVP voting (third) than Leonard (ninth).
Leonard and George on the floor? The possibilities are promising.
“Imagine having Kawhi and Lou (Williams) and Paul,” Rivers said, “and a team tries to trap?you. You’re going to pretty much get what you want.”
That’s three players who averaged at least 20 points each last season. That level of offensive fire, along with the defense that the Clippers are capable of playing, should keep LA elevated in the West standings and their place among the league elite.
“We don’t have our team yet,” Rivers said.
No, they don’t. But Monday was perhaps the last time Rivers could make that statement. Paul George is a very important part of a package that will make the Clippers complete. The next time Kawhi Leonard struggles, the help he receives will be more than adequate.
In that sense, Leonard will be surrounded by better help than he had in Toronto last season. And we know how that turned out.
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