TORONTO – When Kawhi Leonard stepped off the court on Jan. 13, his bizarre final season with the San Antonio Spurs was already done after only nine games.
It’s been nine months since one of the NBA’s biggest stars has been in a real game. Leonard has missed playing basketball.
“Everything – bad calls, missing shots, making shots, winning games, high fives with teammates and just being competitive out there,” the 27-year-old said Tuesday. “Just (missed) everything, I love the game.”
Leonard, back in action after a quad injury scuttled his 2017-18 season, will make his long-awaited regular-season debut with Toronto when the Raptors host Cleveland on Wednesday. As much as Raptors fans have been eager to see Leonard – the biggest piece in the blockbuster trade that sent DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs – fit seamlessly into his new team, Leonard would also like nothing better.
But Leonard, who was the MVP of the 2013 NBA Finals, suggested it could be a work in progress.
“The challenge is coming in to a new coaching standpoint and direction,” he said after practice. “It’s not the same offence that I’m used to. It’s a different coach, different style of play. I’m used to playing the same way for six years so that’s the challenge for me, just learning the new plays.”
For the past few years, the Raptors’ blueprint has been built around the hard work and hustle of DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and a supporting cast, with former head coach Dwane Casey, who was fired after last season’s playoff disappointment, barking encouragement from the bench. The Raptors have been among the best in the league in the fourth quarter of games.
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Nick Nurse, an NBA rookie head coach and Casey’s former assistant, said he hopes that same workmanlike mentality is instilled this season’s team as the Raptors look to take a revamped roster all the way to the NBA Finals.
“It’s not like it’s something that we talked about a lot at all in the past. Like, ‘Hey we’re going to come out and play harder,”‘ Nurse said. “It’s kind a given a little bit that we’re going to come out and play hard. I think your practice structure, your preparation, all those things feed into that sense of: we’re ready to play and we’re ready to fight.”
If “culture reset” was the catchphrase heading into last season, Nurse was asked how he would characterize this season.
“I just think there’s a little bit more of a blank paper here because our team has changed,” he said. “I think our team is more versatile and I hope that plays itself out on the floor. I want to see lots of groups play well. I want to see great chemistry. I want to see given extra effort, pulling for your teammates.
“Those are the kinds of things we’re shooting for because that’s what we need.”
Nurse is expecting the Raptors to be an aggressive presence on defence, and the six-foot-seven Leonard, named the NBA’s top defensive player in 2015 and ’16, will go a long way in initiating that.
“That’s how you win games, coming out establishing an aggressive team and that’s usually started by defence,” Leonard said. “So you just got to go out, feel bodies and contest all shots and get the rebounds and then you’re off to the races on offence.”
Leonard showed tantalizing glimpses of his imposing and pestering defensive presence in the pre-season, in forcing turnovers and bad shots.
“That’s how you get your winning streaks going and fuel your offence by limiting them to one shot and coming down on the offensive end and feeling good rather than them racking up shots each and every possession,” he said. “So we want to get our hands in the passing lanes, get deflections, get out in the open court and get easy layups and just keep moving from there.”
There will be plenty of speculating in the next few months about whether Leonard could re-sign with the Raptors after his one-year deal expires. Having had some time in Toronto, the team’s new star was asked if he’s settling into his new home. Has he found a favourite restaurant? Is he comfortable getting around?
“Coming to practice and going home,” Leonard said, on his experience so far in Toronto. “And trying to find something that’s close to the house and just enjoy my family as much as I can because season is on the way, time is going to be limited at the house, so just to try to stay comfortable with my family, and spending time with them.”
Backup guard Delon Wright shot on Tuesday, but otherwise didn’t practise with the team and is questionable for the season opener with a groin injury.
The Raptors let Monday night’s deadline to sign Wright to a contract extension pass, meaning the fourth-year guard will become a restricted agent in July.
“We love Delon. It was mutual (not to extend),” Raptors GM Bobby Webster said. “He had some (bad) luck with his shoulder in his second year so I think this is a great chance for him to make another jump and for us to see it.”
Opening week will provide an interesting gauge of how the Raptors stack in the LeBron-less Eastern Conference this season. They host the Boston Celtics on Friday and then are on the road against the Washington Wizards – last season’s first-round playoff opponent – on Saturday.