Cana­dian fans still love Kawhi Leonard

For­mer Rap­tor re­ceives warm wel­come dur­ing matchup in Van­cou­ver

The Peterborough Examiner - - SPORTS - GEMMA KARSTENS-SMITH

VAN­COU­VER — Cana­di­ans con­tinue to be stereo­typ­i­cally po­lite to for­mer Toronto Rap­tors star Kawhi Leonard.

The lat­est ex­am­ple came Thurs­day when Leonard made his Cana­dian home­com­ing with the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers for a pre-sea­son game in Van­cou­ver. But it wasn’t the first time the reign­ing Na­tional Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion Fi­nals MVP re­ceived a warm greet­ing from Canucks since leav­ing Toronto.

“Just go­ing around in the sum­mer time, even af­ter me sign­ing with the Clip­pers, Cana­di­ans came up to me and they said thank you for ev­ery­thing I’ve done,” Leonard said af­ter the game against the Dal­las Mav­er­icks.

“They’re very nice peo­ple.” Leonard be­came one of Canada’s most pop­u­lar ath­letes last sea­son as he led the Rap­tors to their first-ever NBA cham­pi­onship and was named Fi­nals MVP af­ter av­er­ag­ing 30.5 points per game in the ex­tended play­off run.

Hopes were high that the suc­cess would en­tice the 28-yearold to con­tinue play­ing up north, but Leonard opted to join his home­town Clip­pers in free agency, re­port­edly agree­ing to a three-year, $103-mil­lion (U.S.) con­tract.

Still, Cana­dian bas­ket­ball fans show­ered him with love Thurs­day, cheer­ing bois­ter­ously when he jogged out for warmups and re­peat­ing the cheers ev­ery time he hit a shot in the

Clip­pers’ 102-87 loss to the


A sim­i­lar scene greeted the team as play­ers walked through Van­cou­ver’s streets be­fore the game, said Clip­pers rookie Terance Mann.

“Def­i­nitely a lot of fans here. It was nice to see, es­pe­cially for Kawhi,” he said. “It was awe­some to see him come back to Canada and ev­ery­body give him a warm wel­come.”

As the pre-sea­son comes to an end, there’s one piece of busi­ness still out­stand­ing for last sea­son’s NBA cham­pi­onship­win­ning Rap­tors — rais­ing the ti­tle ban­ner to the rafters.

That will hap­pen Tues­day when Toronto hosts the New Or­leans Pel­i­cans in the sea­son opener. Leonard will be in Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the cer­e­mony, pre­par­ing for the Clip­pers’ bat­tle with Le­Bron James and the L.A. Lak­ers later that night.

The for­mer Rap­tor says he still plans to keep an eye on the cel­e­bra­tion.

“I’m go­ing to prob­a­bly check it out,” Leonard said.

His fo­cus, how­ever, has al­ready turned to the sea­son ahead.

For weeks now, the Clip­pers have been work­ing out in train­ing camp, build­ing sys­tems and cre­at­ing new bonds.

“You just know per­son­al­i­ties so you just get more com­fort­able talk­ing to peo­ple, know­ing what they like, they know what I like and just go­ing from there, pretty much,” Leonard ex­plained.

“That’s why you just kind of want to get around guys early so you can build the team chem­istry and you can feel com­fort­able talk­ing to some­one when you’re on and off the floor.”

One prom­i­nent face has been miss­ing from on-court drills, how­ever. Paul Ge­orge, who came to the Clip­pers this off­sea­son af­ter be­ing re­cruited by Leonard, has re­sumed train­ing af­ter un­der­go­ing surgery on both shoul­ders dur­ing the off­sea­son.

With a key player still to join, it’s hard to say what the Clip­pers will look like early on in the year, Leonard said.

“We’ll just have to see how it plays out,” he said. “We still have to find a rhythm with each other play­ing to­gether. But I think we’re go­ing to do well.”

Leonard is no stranger to re­turn­ing from a ma­jor in­jury. Play­ing for the San An­to­nio Spurs in 2017, he suf­fered a quadri­ceps in­jury and when he was traded to the Rap­tors in the sum­mer of 2018, staff had to care­fully con­sider what the star’s body could han­dle.

They came up with a “load man­age­ment” regime that saw Leonard play 60 reg­u­lar-sea­son games, while sit­ting out for 22.

It’s not a sched­ule that Leonard

plans to fol­low again this sea­son.

“I was in­jured last year com­ing in so it was the only way I could play the sched­ule and not re­ally af­fect the team out­come,” he said. “So this year will be a lot dif­fer­ent.”

Out­side ex­pec­ta­tions for the Clip­pers are high this sea­son. A sur­vey of NBA gen­eral man­agers picked the team as the one to beat for this year’s cham­pi­onship ti­tle.

In­side the locker room, the play­ers are tak­ing the sea­son one step at a time, Leonard said.

“It’s not about what peo­ple think or what they pick,” said Leonard, who will make his re­turn to Toronto on Dec. 11 when the Clip­pers face the Rap­tors. “It’s about the work we do and what our mind­set’s go­ing to be. If we don’t want to win, we’re not go­ing to win. And if we want to, then we have a big chance to win.”


Clip­pers’ Kawhi Leonard runs onto the court be­fore a pre-sea­son game against the Dal­las Mav­er­icks in Van­cou­ver on Thurs­day.

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