The Spurs’ suffocating defence, scoring runs and fans’ unrelenting contempt for the opposing team’s star player have often overwhelmed the opposition.
Kawhi Leonard has seen it many times in San Antonio, but the Toronto star never experienced it from the opposing bench until Thursday night. It was worse than he expected.
DeMar DeRozan had 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his first career triple-double, and San Antonio welcomed back Leonard with thunderous jeers in the Spurs’ 125-107 victory over the Raptors.
“You’ve got to thrive in moments like that,” DeRozan said. “You’ve got to love to play in that type of atmosphere, whether it’s at home or on the road. It kind of fuels you, kind of gets you going. That’s what made it so fun.”
It wasn’t much fun for Leonard and the Raptors, who saw a three-game winning streak snapped in inglorious fashion.
Leonard scored 21 points on eight-for-13 shooting, but the anger the Spurs fans showered on him seemed to impact the MVP candidate. Leonard had to take a step back at the free throw line and compose himself amid chants of “Traitor! Traitor!” and “Quitter! Quitter!” from the capacity crowd that adored him during his seven seasons in San Antonio.
The reception didn’t surprise Leonard.
“No,” Leonard said. “Media does a great mind to stir people’s minds and to influence them to think a certain way so I already knew how that was going to be, the way the media was.”
Fans were angry that Leonard forced his way out of San Antonio this off-season in a trade that yielded DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl from Toronto for him and Danny Green.
Leonard was booed heavily from the moment he walked onto the court for warmup. The boos continued during a pregame video tribute and player introductions, whenever he touched the ball and as he walked off the court following the lopsided loss.
“I felt badly about it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “Kawhi’s a high-character guy. We all make decisions in our lives about what we’re going to do with our futures, and he has that same right as any of us. So I felt badly, honestly.”
The Spurs gave reason for the fans to constantly cheer, leading by as many as 28 points against a Raptors team that has been atop the Eastern Conference for much of the season.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 23 points for San Antonio, Bryn Forbes added 20, Derrick White 19 and Rudy Gay 13.
“Yeah, it was a different kind of game. It was more of a playoff atmosphere, but that’s what we live for,” Gay said. “It’s the NBA, you’re going to have times like this. Those are times you have to step up.”
The night belonged to DeRozan, though, as he became the first San Antonio player with a triple-double at home since Tim Duncan in 2003.
“I told him it was about time,” Popovich said.
DeRozan shot seven for 15 from the field, collecting 13 defensive rebounds and finishing with just three turnovers in 33 minutes.
DeRozan’s 10th assist came on an entry to Aldridge that the Spurs centre punctuated with a celebration in honour of his teammate’s career milestone.
“He was in high gear tonight,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “He was in his fast athletic gear tonight and when he’s in that gear, he’s tough to handle, as we all know.”
After leading by as many as 26 points in the first half, San Antonio opened the second half on a 12-0 run to take a 79-51 lead.
The crowd erupted during a sequence of plays when Leonard had the ball tipped away, which led to a slam dunk by White. That possession was followed by Leonard being unable to corral an alley-oop pass, which led to DeRozan tossing in a runner and being fouled by Serge Ibaka. DeRozan made the free throw amid chants of “MVP! MVP!” — something Leonard heard during his time in San Antonio.
“We didn’t do a good job in transition, defence,” Leonard said. “We didn’t play well at all defensively. Spurs did a great job pushing the pace and kicking out for wide-open shots.”
As the game ended, Popovich and Leonard embraced in a long hug, and the Spurs coach led his former star to San Antonio’s bench to greet assistant coach Ettore Messina.