Raptors go west, Kawhi back to Oracle where so much changed
So much changed after Kawhi Leonard crashed to the Oracle Arena floor on May 14, 2017.
The San Antonio Spurs had a 23-point lead on the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals when Leonard departed with 26 points, poised to take away home-court advantage in the series between teams who won more than 60 games.
Leonard injured his ankle when he landed on Zaza Pachulia’s foot after taking a jump shot, and things were never the same again for the Spurs or Leonard. The Spurs couldn’t hold on to win that game or any other in the series without their All-Star forward, whose ankle injury would be followed by a lingering thigh injury that would limit him to just nine games the following season and strain relations between the team and player. Leonard was ultimately granted his desire to leave San Antonio when he was traded to Toronto in the offseason.
If Leonard doesn’t go down, maybe the Spurs win that game, maybe the series and maybe another championship. Maybe Leonard wouldn’t have wanted to leave.
“Regardless of the fact, would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, we’re here now,” said Danny Green, who was traded to Toronto with Leonard. “And obviously it would have been nice if things went differently then and we would have continued to play and maybe had something special happen then, but we’re here now so we want to try to make some good things happen now.”
Leonard is set to play at Oracle Arena for the first time since his injury on Wednesday, again looking like the player whose team might be the biggest threat to the Warriors.
It’s a rematch of perhaps the game of the season and another potential NBA Finals preview. Leonard scored 37 points on Nov. 29 in Toronto, when the Raptors overcame a season-high 51 points from Kevin Durant to win 131-128 in overtime. Toronto has the NBA’s best record, but this time would have to beat the Warriors with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, who were injured in the first matchup.
Leonard dealt with injuries for a long time, but he appears just about back to where he was at his peak. Coach Nick Nurse has noticed how Leonard is jumping higher on his dunks and not coming up short on his 3-pointers, and the Raptors are close to eliminating all the minutes restrictions that were in place when the season started.
“I think there’s more to come,” Nurse said.
LOOKING AT LUKA
Luka Doncic will have a chance to show the teams who passed on drafting him what they are missing.
Any of those opponents could have had the 19-year-old who might be the favorite for Rookie of the Year, but he’s not any extra motivated to play against them.
“It’s like any game,” he said. “I’m more motivated when I play, like, superstars, like LeBron, KD, James Harden.”
The Mavericks positioned themselves to take the versatile guard who already had a decorated resume in Europe by trading with the Hawks to move up two spots to No. 3 in the draft. Atlanta used that No. 5 selection on Trae Young.
The Suns had the top pick and the Kings were No. 2, but both went with big men. The Suns — whose coach, Igor Kokoskov, guided Doncic and Slovenia to the European title — took Deandre Ayton. The Kings — perhaps wary that the Euroleague MVP would remain with Real Madrid if he didn’t like his draft situation — took Duke’s Marvin Bagley III. Both have shown promise, but so far Doncic has been the best.
The Western Conference rookie of the month for October/November and leading scorer among first-year players stole the Mavs a win over Houston on Saturday with a personal 11-0 run late in the game.
Doncic has helped turn the Mavs (13-11) around and isn’t thinking about what might have been.
“No,” he said. “I’m happy here.”
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH DURING THE WEEK:
Toronto at Los Angeles Clippers, Wednesday. Everything looks great in Toronto, but Leonard will be a free agent in July and those rumors about him wanting to play in Los Angeles haven’t gone away.
Orlando vs. Chicago, Thursday, and vs. Utah, Saturday. The NBA plays two regular-season games in Mexico City for the third straight year.
HURTING BUT HOME
The Nuggets are hurting, but at least they’re home.
They do it after losing Gary Harris (right hip) and Paul Millsap (broken right big toe) on their trip. They dropped the final two games of it, falling to Atlanta 106-98 on Saturday hours after announcing the injury news.
“It’s a tough way to finish up a long road trip,” coach Michael Malone said.
Painful one, too.