LOS ANGELES — About two hours before tipoff between the Clippers and Raptors on Monday, Kawhi Leonard was catching passes on the left elbow, shooting turnaround fadeaway after turnaround fadeaway with an artful precision. While there was a little extra buzz in Staples Center for Leonard’s first game against the team he won the Finals with only five months ago, you wouldn’t guess from Kawhi’s pregame routine. There were no extra smiles. No seeking out old teammates on the other side of the floor. Simply put, there were no theatrics. There was only the work.
Leonard’s first game against the Raptors probably left a little to be desired. The Clippers won a 98–88 rock fight against a Toronto team on the second night of a back-to-back. Leonard, the target of uber-aggressive traps all night long, scored only 12 points on 2-of-11 shooting while being forced into nine turnovers (though he did compensate with nine assists.) Still, those hoping for an extra burst of emotion, a knowing smile, or a spirited back-and-forth received nothing of the sort from Leonard. Once the ball went into the air, his stoic mien was reminiscent of every other game he’s played this season.
After the game, Leonard’s coach Doc Rivers said he was impressed by how little Leonard lets his emotions affect him during a game, saying he doesn’t know anyone else in the world like Kawhi. While Leonard admitted playing against his old championship teammates was more fun than a normal matchup—and even admitted to talking to his opponents more than usual—he also didn’t buy into the nostalgia of the night at all.
“What would I think about last season?,” Leonard said when asked if playing the Raptors made him reminisce about last year. “It’s over now. We won. I had a great time there. It’s the next chapter now. I can’t live in the past or just be excited I won. I’m on a different team.”
And in that moment, in which Leonard gave yet another deadpan, matter-of-fact answer to a postgame question, any thoughts of constructing a narrative about his first game against the Raptors drifted away.
There are already lots of fascinating aspects to Kawhi’s relatively brief career. His cloudy exit from the Spurs. His very brief but highly successful tenure in Toronto. What nights like Monday show is how little use Kawhi seems to have for any of the noise that surrounds his actual job, which is simply to win the games he’s playing in.
Other superstars may not love the narratives surrounding them, but that doesn’t mean they never give in to them. We’re used to seeing stars like LeBron, KD, Russ, Giannis, or Embiid play with a little extra outward fire in flashpoint moments, whether those games are occurring against former teammates or current rivals. Leonard, on the other hand, maintains a perfectly even keel practically every night, no matter who else is on the floor.
This isn’t to suggest Kawhi isn’t emotional, or wasn’t excited to play against his former teammates. Offering any kind of psychoanalysis of Leonard or what’s motivating him deep down would be purely speculation—but that kind of seems to be his point. We’re so used to basketball’s biggest names laying their deeply personal thoughts bare to us, that Kawhi’s refusal to engage in the hagiography around his own career catches most people off guard.
In the absence of information, people refer to Leonard as emotionless, or a robot. To me, Leonard’s reclusiveness has more to do with him not being interested in building a narrative around his career than any special human level of non-caring. While the thoughts on Kawhi’s emotions are almost always guesses, he’s made it very clear at every turn how little use he has for helping build any kind of framing around his career.
Leonard answers every postgame question quietly and matter of factly, no matter the night. He doesn’t do the big, revealing magazine cover interviews. He’s not chopping it up on anyone’s podcast. Kawhi’s disinterest in taking part in the storybuilding around his career—and his immense success on the floor—almost makes you wonder why any other player of his ilk does so.
So yes, you could say Leonard’s first game against the Raptors since leading them to their first title was a little anticlimactic. From Kawhi’s end, there were no epiphanies, no wistful trips down memory lane. What Leonard has shown time and time again in moments like Monday night is the stories surrounding the game mean incredibly little compared to what’s happening on the floor. And on the court, Kawhi’s team won. That’s the only thing we can be certain he cares to discuss.