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Former Spurs Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green lead the way for young Raptors

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard looks on during practice

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard looks on during practice for the NBA Finals in Toronto on Saturday. Credit: The Canadian Press via AP/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — In the days leading up to the start of the NBA Finals, the too long of a breather that allowed rest, preparation and in the case of the Toronto Raptors, time for the young players who had never been on this stage to think of the enormity of the task.

Not only had most of them never been in the Finals, just as the franchise had never reached this in its history, but they were facing the Golden State Warriors, who were making their fifth straight trip to the Finals. The questions mostly focused around what the future held for the Warriors this summer after the formality of running by the Raptors.

And then, one minute and 14 seconds into Game 1, when the chills of the Canadian national anthem performed by The Tenors had subsided and only the nerves of the reality of their situation surrounded them, the Raptors put the ball in the hands of Danny Green. And he calmly drained a three-point field goal, the first points for Toronto.

The Long Island native had been in the Finals two times before while with the San Antonio Spurs, had celebrated a championship win. And then Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors star who had been the face of the trade that brought Green here last summer, followed with a three-pointer, too. By the time the first quarter was over the Raptors were in front and with a few scares held on for the victory.

Was it coincidence that it was left to Green and Leonard who had been tasked with starting this series for the neophyte franchise?

“Yes, probably,” Green said with a smile. “I didn’t notice that until you mentioned it to me. We got out running, able to run our offense how we’ve been doing most of the year. When we’re in our transition that’s when we’re at our best.

“[It’s] very important, especially playing against three-time, four-time, whatever champions. So many times they’ve been [to the Finals]. You’ve got to protect home court. It’s what we fought for all year. Can’t give them any type of life or confidence and keep taking advantage of the advantage that we have.”

Green and Leonard are the only Raptors to have won a championship before and in their one season here — which could come to an end with both facing free agency this summer -- have been left to answer questions from teammates. Some like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, who each came up big in Game 1, are young and finding their way. Others like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have had individual successes but have never gotten this far.

“Obviously we share experiences,” Green said. “We talk about certain things. They obviously have some questions sometimes. It’s not like we come in, ‘Oh this is what we did in San Antonio.’ If they ask or they want to know, we share it and tell them.”

While it once was Green hearing the lessons from Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili in San Antonio, he now imparts them. And he was happy to see how his teammates rose to the occasion.

“Very impressed with how poised they were, especially Fred, Pascal,” he said. “Just enjoying the moment and continuing to just play basketball and not letting the bright lights get to them. The first couple of minutes, everybody’s adrenaline is going. We had a couple of missed shots because everybody’s excited, juiced up. Probably some strong ones. But once the first couple minutes get out, then guys kind of settle in and start playing some good basketball.”

Welcome back Kerr

Warriors coach Steve Kerr recalled a game in Toronto Raptors history, when he was part of a Chicago Bulls team that brought their star-packed show across the border and lost to the expansion franchise before a sold-out crowd.

“I remember missing the game-winning shot at the buzzer,” he said.

The results were similar Thursday in Game 1, but he did enjoy the atmosphere — at least the welcome from the crowd other than Drake, who was screaming insults at Draymond Green as the teams headed to the locker room.

“It was a great, great atmosphere,” Kerr said. “The national anthem was one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of. Hearing the crowd sing along to O Canada, it was beautiful. And I thought our guys responded well. We're used to playing on the road, hostile environments, all that. I don't think we played our ‘A’ game; I think that's obvious. I think we did some good things and there are a lot of areas we need to improve. 

“But the crowd will never have anything to do with that with this team. We're going to play our game. It's fun. Frankly, it's fun to be in these environments, to be challenged, to be threatened, especially because the Canadian fans are so nice that even when they're harassing us they do it in a very polite manner.”

Remain calm

As the Raptors and Warriors battle for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the Knicks, who have been off since April 11, are awaiting their next moment in the spotlight — June 20 when the NBA Draft is held.

And the Knicks pick at No. 3 took on a little more uncertainty this week with reports from ESPN that:

A. The Grizzlies, who reportedly were locked in at No. 2 with Ja Morant after Zion Williamson goes No. 1 to the Pelicans, now want to work out Duke’s RJ Barrett. But there are reports that Barrett, who ESPN reported declined a private workout with the Grizzlies, could now be in the mix for that No. 2 pick.

B. ESPN also reported that the Knicks had talks of trading out of the third spot with an eye on the Hawks pair of picks at No. 8 and 10. 

First, the thought that Barrett could be in play at No. 2 is not a surprise. Some executives at the NBA Draft Combine speculated that in workouts Barrett could rise. As far as Barrett trying to land at Madison Square Garden, the Grizzlies only need to look back to the last time the Knicks were picking in this range for a lesson. The 76ers, a spot ahead of the Knicks, wanted to work out Kristaps Porzingis, but his camp resisted and the team settled instead on Jahlil Okafor, leaving Porzingis for the Knicks.

As far as trading back for more assets the Knicks had better be sure of who is available at No. 3 and have a strong opinion on who they could land later in the lottery. While they are still young, the Knicks recent picks at No. 8 (Frank Ntilikina) and No. 9 (Kevin Knox) haven’t exactly take the league by storm.

Lesson learned

Kerr was asked about the $50,000 fine that the NBA imposed on Clippers coach Doc Rivers for commenting on Kawhi Leonard in a television appearance and he said that he learned his lesson long ago.

"I got fined when I was the GM of Phoenix for making a joke on The Dan Patrick Show," Kerr said Saturday afternoon. "I think he asked me if we were interested in LeBron when LeBron was a free agent back in whatever it was that he went to Miami. I said if he's willing to take minimum, we would take him. Dan laughed. And I wrote a $10,000 check the next day. So I learned my lesson. I don't comment about any other players."

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