As he wiped the back of his neck with a towel, Kawhi Leonard confirmed what the box score made obvious.
Playing against the Toronto Raptors on Monday night was an emotional experience.
“Yeah, definitely,” Leonard said to Fox Sports West’s Jaime Maggio in an interview that was played over Staples Center’s public-address system.
BOX SCORE: CLIPPERS 98, RAPTORS 88
Leonard was held by his former team to a season-low 12 points. He made only two of 11 field-goal attempts. He committed a season-high nine turnovers.
But it was enough.
With Leonard nearly recording a triple-double by registering 11 rebounds and nine assists, the Clippers won 98-88 over the team he led to its first NBA championship last season.
“That’s what a championship team is about,” Leonard said. “When your star is not going or they’re double-teaming you, you have other guys knocking down big shots like they did tonight.”
Leonard’s mental state was the subject of widespread speculation before the game, which was nothing new.
In the days leading up to the game, the notoriously guarded superstar told reporters he considered his reunion with the Raptors just another game. And that’s what it looked like.
When he walked onto the court for the start of the game, he lightly tapped fists with Raptors center Marc Gasol, who patted him on his backside. Leonard had a similar exchange with guard Norman Powell.
That was it.
No embraces. No smiles.
Just a game, as Leonard said it would be.
The game was intense, but that was because the Clippers and Raptors were well matched. The home crowd was into the game, but that was because the score was close.
Asked whether he noticed any changes in Leonard’s demeanor, coach Doc Rivers laughed.
“Have you ever noticed any change in his demeanor?” Rivers asked.
No, which is why Rivers was being asked whether he had.
“Neither have I,” Rivers said.
But Rivers was certain Leonard was feeling something.
“I think every player, no matter if you’re the best player or you’re the worst player, you play your ex-team, and even if you left on the best of terms, worst of terms, it doesn’t matter, you want to do well,” Rivers said. “Just like the team who’s playing against you, they want to do well against you. So that’s normal stuff, really.”
Leonard appeared calm, but his shot indicated otherwise.
It wasn’t falling.
Some of that had to do with the Raptors, who often sent multiple defenders in his direction.
Leonard had only one point in the first quarter. He had only four points at halftime, all of them on free throws.
“If we make him work and we make him take a high volume of shots and make them the shot we want him to take and he makes a bunch of them, so be it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “But we don’t want to give him the easy stuff.”
He had four assists in the second quarter to send the Clippers into the break with a 51-46 advantage.
His signature play of the game was also an assist, a one-bounce pass that went through three Raptors defenders and was received by Montrezl Harrell, whose dunk with 58 seconds remaining extended the Clippers’ lead to 94-88.
“You’re not going to play well every night, yet he almost had a triple-double, still,” Rivers said.
Before the game, Nurse spoke of the one-on-one conversations he shared with Leonard last season as if they were cherished memories.
“I got some insight about who he was as a player and a person,” Nurse said.
When Nurse revealed details, what became evident was that the talks were unforgettable not because Leonard said anything extraordinary, but because he let him into his private world.
Leonard told Nurse he wanted to play. He wanted to stay healthy. He wanted to play for a long time. And he wanted to win.
That was more or less it.
Nurse recalled there were times he told Leonard he could have scored, say, 40 points in a particular game.
“He was like, ‘I don’t care about that,’ ” Nurse said. “He goes, ‘Coach, we got to get the win. We got to get better. It’s a good team, and that’s all I’m about.’ I just thought it was really cool for him to put that as his real focus of what he was doing.”
Leonard didn’t score 40 points Monday, but his team won. That would have to be enough.
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