VANCOUVER — Kawhi Leonard’s first points as a Toronto Raptor came just over a minute into Saturday’s game, when he nimbly sidestepped Al-Farouq Aminu and scored on a jump shot.
They were also the Raptors’ first points of their pre-season, a fitting beginning to what Toronto hopes is a long relationship with Leonard, who was acquired in a blockbuster off-season trade.
Leonard had 12 points in the Raptors’ 122-104 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in his first game since Jan. 13, and showed glimpses of the greatness Masai Ujiri was counting on when he shipped beloved DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for the two-time NBA defender of the year.
Jonas Valanciunas had 17 points and seven rebounds to top Toronto, while Kyle Lowry had 15 points, and Fred VanVleet had 11. Pascal Siakam grabbed 13 rebounds.
Meyers Leonard led Portland with 16 points, while Damian Lillard had 12.
Introduced last among the starters, “No. 2, you know who,” Leonard played 19 first-half minutes, shooting 3-for-8 from the field and 6-for-11 from the free throw line, before taking a seat for good.
Bucket or not, it's gonna be a fun year. #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/PrpNqzHLie
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) September 30, 2018
The box score didn’t reflect all the positives of Leonard’s debut. The 27-year-old showed no signs of the quadriceps injury that sidelined the 27-year-old for all but nine games last season. He went hard to the rim, and on one play drew a foul while falling flat on his back.
And his chemistry with point guard Kyle Lowry was virtually instant. A second-quarter fast break saw four passes between the two stars, culminating in a Leonard basket. It was whistled off after a Portland foul, eliciting a loud laugh at the referee from Lowry.
Part of the NBA Canada Series, the game marked the Raptors’ fourth visit to Vancouver, and sold out in less than 20 minutes. The loud Rogers Arena crowd of 18,654 fans was dotted with dozens of Raptors jerseys — as well as the odd teal Vancouver Grizzlies jersey — and included former Raptors Morris Peterson and Shawn Marion. A group of fans held a huge sign that read: “#VancouverWantsNBA.”
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While the combined 76 free throw attempts spoke volumes about the sloppiness of the pre-season, there were plenty of entertaining moments. A gorgeous tic-tac-toe play saw Siakam bring the ball up the floor on the break, find Valanciunas at the top of the key, who in turn launched a crisp pass to Lowry for a three-pointer from the corner.
The Blazers led 33-32 after the first quarter, but thanks in large part to Lowry’s 12 second-quarter points, the Raptors outscored Portland by 10 and went into halftime up 64-57.
Toronto led 89-78 after three quarters and Nick Nurse, who was also making his Raptors debut as head coach, went deep into his bench for the fourth.
Sixteen Raptors played. The one notable absence was sophomore OG Anunoby, who wasn’t with the team due to personal reasons.
The Raptors play in Utah on Tuesday, then return home to host Melbourne United of Australia’s National Basketball League on Friday. They’ll host the Brooklyn Nets at Montreal’s Bell Centre on Oct. 10.
Toronto opens the regular season at home against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 17.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press