OAKLAND — The question NBA fans in the True North are asking themselves is whether winning an NBA title with the Raptors might prompt Kawhi Leonard to stay with the franchise rather than leave as a free agent one season after they traded for him. With the two-time champion Warriors reeling from a series of injuries going into Game 3 and the series tied 1-1 Wednesday night at Oracle Arena, Leonard was faced with a golden opportunity to get the road win the Raptors needed to regain home-court advantage.
While the Raptors insist they treat each game with a sense of urgency, they all know Leonard has a big decision to make in the offseason and this is their chance to convince him to stay. Asked if winning a title might tip the scales in favor of Leonard remaining with the Raptors, guard Danny Green said, “Possibly. I’m very impressed with how he’s handled himself and carried our team. He’s done a great job. Tremendous job. He’s been our leader, not just vocally, but by his actions.
“We’re going to need him to continue to do that. Us winning that could be a decision-maker for him, but that’s not something we’re worried about right now. We’re thinking about taking advantage of this opportunity at hand and enjoying this moment and trying to win one.”
The Warriors went into Game 3 without Kevon Looney, who suffered a fractured collarbone in Game 2 and is out for the series, and without Kevin Durant (calf). Klay Thompson (left hamstring tightness) was ruled out just before game time.
While the Warriors are battling health issues, Leonard seems to have overcome the quad problems that limited him to nine games in 2017-18 and that caused the Raptors training staff to rest him for 22 games this season. Leonard suffered one scare in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals when he limped through a 52-minute performance in a double-overtime victory, but he has averaged 38.9 minutes in 20 playoff games.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse said he’s comfortable putting that load on Leonard. “I keep saying it, he’s good,” Nurse said. “Really knows his body. I think he’s got a lot of minutes in him, 40-plus a night. I think he’s going to get his cracks at the shots.”
Pressed for an update on how he’s holding up physically and how he feels about the way the Raptors have managed his health, Leonard backed up Nurse. “A hundred percent,” Leonard said. “I’m on the floor. There are no excuses. Everybody knows everyone’s banged up, bruised up at this moment.
“You heard it before, coming into the season, I wasn’t feeling healthy. Still was trying to get back to my old self. They felt that, seeing pictures of my body. We pretty much just laid out the schedule, went game by game, see did things get worse or better and then just keep attacking each day.”
Going into Game 3, the results showed in Leonard’s dominant playoff stat line, including 30.9 points per game, 9.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 38.9 percent shooting from three-point range. With Thompson out, the Warriors figured to return Draymond Green to the primary defensive role on Leonard, who struggled against Thompson in the Warriors’ Game 2 win.
“Kawhi is so big and strong you can’t really muscle him,” Thompson said after practice on Tuesday. “All you can do is try to take away his air space. He’s become such a good ballhandler, such a great shooter that you have to do anything you can to take his rhythm away . . . Lucky for us, we have so many great defenders we can throw many looks at him. Kawhi just presents a lot of problems.”