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Kawhi Leonard’s return to San Antonio not just another game

January 3, 2019
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Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) is fouled going to the net by Utah Jazz forward Jae Crowder (99) as forward Royce O'Neale (23) watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, in Toronto. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is downplaying the significance of Kawhi Leonard’s return to San Antonio.

As usual, Leonard isn’t saying much.

But Leonard’s first game in San Antonio since being traded to Toronto along with Danny Green for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl has more significance than just another regular season game

Popovich once deemed the franchise belonged to the 6-foot-7 MVP candidate with the impending departure of the Big Three — Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. But Leonard’s unhappiness and request for a trade stunned the organization.

“Give me some popcorn, I just want to watch it,” Spurs veteran LaMarcus Aldridge quipped Wednesday. “If I can just get some popcorn and watch it, I would, but I might have to play.”

It’s easier to joke about the pending reunion because there was nothing funny about the breakup.

Leonard sat out all but nine games last season with a right quadriceps injury that first flared up prior to training camp. The diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation of the injury created unrepairable tension between Leonard and the Spurs.

At the Raptors shootaround Thursday Leonard said he had a “good time” playing with the Spurs and there are moments when he wishes thing had been handled differently.

“At times, yeah,” he said. “But this is a new year, new season. So, I’m just looking at what’s in front of us right now.”

Neither side has offered any details on the saga — a stance that continues.

“You move on in life,” Popovich said. “We’re not going to redo what’s happened in the past in any way shape or form. That’s of no consequence at this point and it does no good to go backwards and talk about this, that or the other.”

Leonard said he hasn’t spoken to Popovich recently, but enjoys being back in San Antonio.

“It was cool,” he said. “My mom still lives out here. She enjoys it. I mean there’s not nothing you can’t like here.”

On the court, the trade is working out well for both teams — for now.

Leonard is averaging career highs in points (27.3) and rebounds (8.2). DeRozan is having his best season for rebounds (5.9) and assists (6.3) and his 22.9 points per game is within range of his career high of 23.5 points.

Toronto (28-11) has spent most of the season atop the Eastern Conference but is currently second behind Milwaukee (26-10) based on winning percentage.

San Antonio (21-17) has rallied from a poor start to win 10 of its last 13 to close within 4 1/2 games of the top spot in the West.

While the parties involved may have moved on, many Spurs fans have not. Leonard is expected to be booed heavily during the game, but Popovich hopes that is not the case.

“I don’t speak for other people, but I hope that we’ll treat everybody with kindness and respect,” Popovich said. “We always have in the past, so we’ll see.”

Leonard spent his first seven seasons in the NBA with the Spurs after being acquired from Indiana in a draft-day trade. So, his departure is personal to many fans in San Antonio.

Leonard isn’t sure what to expect.

“It only can make me a better player,” he said if fans boo him. “What we have down on the road, what we’re really going to see from this team, it’s only going to get me and us better.”

When asked if had anything to say to Spurs fans Leonard said, “thanks for supporting me...Kawhi Leonard, the basketball player...just thanks for the support.”

Healing is an emotion DeRozan can understand.

When the trade was first announced, DeRozan posted on social media that he felt “betrayed” by the Toronto organization. In the subsequent weeks following the trade, DeRozan said he wanted to gain revenge against the Raptors and that he had circled Thursday’s game “twice” on the league schedule.

Five months later, DeRozan said he hadn’t thought much about the matchup against his former team.

“Emotional? I don’t know, I never experienced an emotional game,” DeRozan said. “I couldn’t answer your questions about it right now. I don’t feel like it’s going to be an emotional game, but that’s right now.”

Said Popovich: “A lot of people, because of the trade, will add fuel to it and try to make it this, that and the other, and that’s fine. But for us, it’s about just trying to get better, create better habits on both ends of the floor. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Those are the goals every game.”

Aldridge agrees with his teammate and coach — to a point.

“It’s emotional for sure, I’ve been there,” the Spurs forward said. “I wasn’t on the end kind of how (DeRozan’s trade) went down. I left a team, and it was not good blood there.

“I can’t speak for him, but I know it’s definitely not just another game, for sure.”

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