SAN ANTONIO — Kawhi Leonard‘s return to face the Spurs was met with the expected reaction.
Leonard, who returned here for the first time Thursday night since being traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, was loudly booed from the moment he took the court for pregame warm-ups, as well as at any point he was shown on the video screens or touched the ball inside AT&T Center as the game progressed.
By contrast, Danny Green — Leonard’s long-time teammate in San Antonio, and who was sent to the Raptors as part of the same trade in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first round pick — was cheered just as loudly throughout pregame introductions.
It made for an odd juxtaposition — particularly when the Spurs before the game played a tribute video honoring both Leonard and Green for their contributions to the franchise. Each time Green was shown on the screen, the crowd would erupt into cheers — which would then be followed by boos when Leonard was on the screen.
The same thing happened during introductions, when Green was introduced first to a standing ovation and Leonard was then quickly introduced after him, though fans still didn’t miss the chance to boo him some more. Both the video and the way the introductions were handled were examples of the Spurs, who had concerned about trying to mitigate the negative energy sent Leonard’s way Thursday night, trying to do just that.
However, there was nothing the Spurs could do about fans’ reaction when the game began. And every time Leonard touched the ball, the fans made it a point to express their displeasure with the star who, after playing only nine games last season, made it clear he wanted nothing to do with the franchise any longer.
Things went sour between Leonard and San Antonio last year when there was a disagreement between Leonard and the Spurs over how to handle the tendinopathy in his left quadricep that bothered him all season long. Leonard wound up playing only nine games with the Spurs — none after mid-January — and missed San Antonio’s five-game loss to the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Before the Raptors starting lineup is announced, the Spurs show a thank you video for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
“We’ll play him the same way we play everybody,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before the game. “It’s pretty tough to change your whole system for one team or one player and that kind of thing.
“You hope what you do works well. It either does or it doesn’t. But you can only do what you’ve practiced.”
Popovich was in a cheery mood during his pregame media session, cracking jokes at reporters’ expense when there weren’t many questions for him. In typical fashion, he also downplayed the significance of the occasion.
“Why?” he replied to a question about whether he just wanted to get the game over with. “It’s another game.”
Regarding the attention that was placed on the game, Popovich said, “That’s mostly you guys [the media]. To us in the middle of it, it’s another battle. Then there’s another one Saturday, and then there’s another one Monday. It just goes on.
“I’ve never paid too much attention to what the building is like to be honest with you. I’ve been doing this a long time, and before I go to the game, I don’t check a meter to see how jacked up everybody may or may not be. You just go play.
“But I get it, fans and all that sort of thing. When I’m watching a playoff football game, I get excited for certain reasons that make no sense probably.”
After scoring the opening basket of the game — a driving layup, on which he was also fouled — Leonard flexed and let out a yell. It was far more than his usual reaction to a made basket, especially to start a game, and was likely a better indication about his feelings about facing his old team than anything he said at his interview session prior to Thursday’s morning shootaround here at AT&T Center.
“At times, yeah,” Leonard said, when asked if he had any regrets about how his last year with the Spurs played out. “But it’s a new year, new season. I’m just looking at what is in front of us right now.”
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