Rap­tors, Leonard hold­ing fans in sus­pense

Coach­ing change and block­buster trade with San An­to­nio may give Toronto that ex­tra push to reach the NBA fi­nal for the first time

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - Sports - LORI EW­ING

TORONTO — A si­lent su­per­star. A dis­grun­tled leader. And a new boss on the bench for the first time in seven years.

The Toronto Rap­tors have emerged from one of the most in­trigu­ing off-sea­sons in re­cent mem­ory, and are about to pull back the cur­tain on what should be a com­pelling reg­u­lar sea­son with count­less ques­tions.

Only what plays out on the court for Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and the Rap­tors this sea­son can an­swer them.

As team pres­i­dent Ma­sai Ujiri put it in the Rap­tors’ tra­di­tional tipoff news con­fer­ence: “You never know with these things. In our jobs, we do them first on pa­per and then they have to pan out on the bas­ket­ball court.”

The Rap­tors pro­duced a fran­chise-best 59 wins last sea­son, but ran head­first into that brick wall — LeBron James and the Cleve­land Cava­liers — for the third con­sec­u­tive post-sea­son. Ujiri didn’t take long to jet­ti­son Dwane Casey, who would win NBA coach of the year weeks later, and re­place him with for­mer as­sis­tant Nick Nurse. He then pulled the trig­ger on one of the NBA’s big­gest off-sea­son deals, send­ing fan favourite De­Mar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl to San An­to­nio for Leonard and Danny Green.

James helped clear the play­off path in the East when he left Cleve­land for the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers. Cou­pled with Ujiri’s bold off-sea­son makeover, the Rap­tors hope to take a run at the NBA fi­nal and per­haps even the fran­chise’s first cham­pi­onship.

If there was an ob­vi­ous wrin­kle in Ujiri’s block­buster trade with the Spurs, it an­gered Lowry. And who knew how Leonard felt? He re­mained mum un­til me­dia day, just be­fore the team left for B.C., for train­ing camp.

“I came here with an open mind,” Leonard said that day. “I want to do great things, so I’m go­ing to make sure that I put all my ef­fort on the court, each and ev­ery night.”

An un­der­ly­ing sea­son theme will be whether the gifted 27year-old with the re­mark­ably large hands wants to hang around af­ter this sea­son. The man of few words, who be­comes a free agent next sum­mer, has given no hints. But he has said all the right things about this sea­son at least.

“As long as I have on a jersey, I want to play bas­ket­ball,” he said.

Leonard is an enigma off the court, but has been among the league’s best on it, cap­tur­ing MVP hon­ours in the 2014 NBA fi­nal. He was side­lined with a quadri­ceps in­jury for all but nine games in a bizarre 2017-18 sea­son with the Spurs that ended in a messy di­vorce. But pre-sea­son re­ports have been pos­i­tive.

“He does have a quiet de­meanour, that’s no ques­tion,” said vet­eran sharp­shooter C.J. Miles. “But for what I was ex­pect­ing, it’s 10 times more com­mu­ni­ca­tion than I (would have) thought from what you see and what you hear.”

Green said he’s seen a level of com­fort Leonard didn’t have in San An­to­nio.

“He’s def­i­nitely more vo­cal than he’s ever been, on and off the court. It looks like he feels com­fort­able. It looks like he feels at home,” Green said. “He’s talk­ing to guys, he’s lead­ing by ex­am­ple, in the hud­dles he’s chim­ing in, say­ing what he feels, say­ing his opin­ion. Be­fore he didn’t re­ally show or tell his opin­ion much ... He’s lead­ing vo­cally more than ever be­fore.”

Lowry, mean­while, was stung when the Rap­tors shipped DeRozan — his good friend and back­court mate — to Texas. But his pre-sea­son chem­istry with Leonard has shown promis­ing signs.

“We’re both com­peti­tors, we’re both try­ing to win and try­ing to win big,” Lowry said.

Nurse was Casey’s as­sis­tant be­fore he was pro­moted, be­com­ing the Rap­tors’ eighth head coach in fran­chise his­tory.

The 51-year-old Iowan, whose re­sume reads like a road map of the Bri­tish Bas­ket­ball and GLeagues, knows build­ing chem­istry will be key to the early sea­son.

“Chem­istry kind of builds all sea­son,” Nurse said. “It’s not like we say ‘OK, it’s Game 1 and now we’ve got our chem­istry.’ I think it shifts and moves all sea­son long.

“It takes some per­se­ver­ance by us (not to) say, ‘Oh, that com­bi­na­tion didn’t work’ and throw it in the bin be­cause it was only a four­minute stretch,” he added. “The sam­ple needs to be sig­nif­i­cant. Some­times you want to pull the trig­ger on that stuff be­cause games are com­ing one af­ter an­other.”

Led by Miles, Fred VanVleet and the emerg­ing Pas­cal Si­akam, the Rap­tors’ sec­ond unit — dubbed the beloved “Bench Mob” — spent much of the off-sea­son work­ing out to­gether, and one of the best benches in the league last sea­son should hit the ground run­ning again.

The Rap­tors will get an early gauge of how they stack up in the East. They host the Cava­liers in their opener on Wednesday, and then the highly-touted Bos­ton Celtics on Fri­day.


With two-time NBA de­fen­sive player of the year Kawhi Leonard aboard, the Toronto Rap­tors are about to pull back the cur­tain on what should be a com­pelling sea­son. The Rap­tors open the reg­u­lar sea­son against the Cleve­land Cava­liers on Wednesday.

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