Kawhi Leonard: Booing in Return to San Antonio 'Only Going to Make Me Better'

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 4, 2019

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) sits on the bench during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Eric Gay/Associated Press

Kawhi Leonard was an NBA Finals MVP, two-time Defensive Player of the Year, two-time All-NBA selection and four-time All-Defensive selection during his time on the San Antonio Spurs, but the fans at the AT&T Center weren't feeling grateful Thursday.

San Antonio defeated Leonard's Toronto Raptors 125-107, and the fans greeted Leonard with plenty of boos and jeers during his first contest back in his old stomping grounds.

"Probably," Leonard said when he was asked if he expected the boos, per Tim Bontemps of ESPN.com. "But I embraced it and enjoyed the moment and it's only going to make me better.

"[The] media does a great job to stir people's minds and influence them to think a certain way. So I already knew how that was going to be, the way the media was."

The crowd's reaction didn't stop Leonard from finishing with 21 points and five assists behind 8-of-13 shooting from the field, but he didn't get much help from the other former Spurs player under the spotlight. Danny Green, who was part of the trade package that brought Leonard to Toronto and DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio, missed all seven of his field-goal attempts in a scoreless effort.

DeRozan countered with a triple-double of 21 points, 14 boards and 11 assists.

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The crowd was much warmer to Green, routinely cheering him during introductions and when he appeared on the screen during a pregame tribute video. It stood in stark contrast to the reception for Leonard, although Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich embraced his former player after the contest.

"I felt badly about it," Popovich said of the crowd's reaction, per Bontemps. "Kawhi's a high-character guy. We all make decisions in our lives with what we're going to do with our futures, and he has that same right as any of us. So I felt badly, in all honesty."

Leonard played just nine games last season on the Spurs as his decision to rehab a quad injury with his own group instead of the team led to what Adrian Wojnarowski and Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com reported as a "chilling impact" between the two sides.

He was traded to the Raptors following the 2017-18 campaign and has helped propel his new team into a tie atop the Eastern Conference with the Milwaukee Bucks. San Antonio is tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, although it has climbed the standings by going 11-3 in its last 14 games.