TORONTO -- Encrusted with more than 640 diamonds, the Toronto Raptors' title ring is said to be the most expensive ever produced for an NBA champion. Inside is a maple leaf featuring a ruby. On top is a diamond-studded Toronto skyline.
Standing at midcourt inside Scotiabank Arena during a pregame ceremony welcoming last season's NBA Finals MVP back to Toronto for the first time since he left for the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent, Kawhi Leonard studied its features Wednesday. Slipping it up to the knuckle of his right index finger and feeling its weight, he broke the stone-serious expression that is his game-day custom, smiling broadly. He embraced Kyle Lowry, the Raptors point guard Leonard won last season's NBA title alongside, turned to the crowd and raised both hands to a roar of approval.
"A great moment," he said.
Leonard responded by sucking the energy out of the building over his 32 minutes of playing time.
The All-NBA forward zipped passes to open shooters when the defense tilted in his direction, finishing with six assists. When a second defender was slow to rush his position, he rose and fired a shot, finishing with 23 points in a 112-92 Clippers victory. He did not overwhelm. But playing the game at his own speed, he was efficient, the kind of performance that endeared him to these fans last season.
"What I loved about him was he was patient," coach Doc Rivers said. "He just waited. He was just waiting. He kept accepting the traps, kept making the right play."
Leonard is famously stoic, even around teammates, but Paul George, who scored 13 points, noticed Leonard was "extra locked in and extra focused" at the team's shoot-around.
Leonard was not wrong for thinking he might receive boos. With each return to San Antonio, the home he left on awkward terms in 2018, Leonard has been booed mercilessly. Only two days before, George received similar treatment in Indiana, where he played his first seven seasons.
"It's basically they look at us as bad guys when things don't go the way they want it to go," George said. "That's just the narrative on those stories when a player dictates where he wants to go."
But Leonard's one remarkable season here has turned a foreigner from Southern California into a Canadian folk hero, and Wednesday's attention was focused all on him -- from the cheers that enveloped him before tipoff, to the defenders that surrounded him after.