Cheers echoed around Rogers Arena as Kawhi Leonard led the Clippers on to the court for warm ups and fans got loud each time he hit a shot. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Basketball fans welcome former Raptor Kawhi Leonard back to Vancouver

VANCOUVER — Kawhi Leonard had a tough night on the court Thursday, but basketball fans enthusiastically welcomed the former Toronto Raptors star back to Canada all the same.

Leonard went five-for-19 from the floor as his L.A. Clippers were beaten 102-87 by the Dallas Mavericks in a pre-season game in Vancouver.

Cheers echoed around Rogers Arena as Leonard led the Clippers on to the court for warm ups and fans got loud each time he hit a shot.

“(Vancouver’s) a great basketball town, a great city,” the 28-year-old said after the game. “You see how they came out tonight, full building. So it was great just to be back.”

Thursday marked Leonard’s return to the city where he took part in his first and only training camp with the Raptors last year.

He went on to lead the Toronto team to their first NBA championship, averaging 30.5 points per game in a playoff run that generated huge television ratings across Canada.

Leonard then opted to join his hometown Clippers in free agency, reportedly agreeing to a three-year, US$103-million contract.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers knew Canadian fans were looking forward to seeing Leonard live on Thursday.

“They should be excited,” the coach said before the game. “He did something very special for this country. So that’ll be a lot of fun for him, for sure.”

Leonard struggled to sink baskets early in Thursday’s contest, but ended the game with 13 points, three rebounds and two assists.

It’s natural for experienced players to get a slow start in pre-season games, Rivers said after the game, noting that Leonard found his groove in the third quarter.

“That’s what vets do. Last couple games, they’re just trying to get their shots up to get their rhythm. That’s why I wasn’t that concerned by it,” the coach said.

Montrezl Harrell was the Clippers’ No. 1 scorer on Thursday, registering 14 points.

Kristaps Porzingis and Justin Jackson led Dallas with 18 points. Porzingis also collected 13 rebounds and registered a single assist.

The Mavericks dominated the game early, putting away the first basket and never letting go of the lead.

Dallas made good on 38.5 per cent of their field goal attempts and 85 per cent of their shots from the line. They also put up some big plays, including a first quarter dunk by big man Boban Marjanovic that drew awe from the sell-out crowd of 17,204.

The Clippers, meanwhile, had a hard time making baskets, shooting just 36.6 per cent from the field and 24.2 per cent from outside the arc.

“We’ve got different guys playing with different guys. So we just missed shots,” Rivers said after the game.

“We’ve got four or five days (before the regular season begins) to get right.”

Before tipoff, Canadians Dwight Powell and Mfiondu Kabengele stood at centre court and thanked fans for coming out.

Powell, a Toronto native, is in his fifth year with the Mavericks but did not play Thursday due to a left hamstring strain.

The Clippers picked Kabengele, who hails from Burlington, Ont., 27th overall in this year’s draft. He came on late in the fourth quarter for L.A., putting up a solid block in the game’s final seconds.

Outside the arena on Thursday, some fans used the game as an opportunity to send the NBA a message.

A group of about 10 people wearing various face masks expressed their displeasure with how the league has handled recent controversy around a tweet Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted voicing support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the league values freedom of expression, but others, including L.A. Lakers star LeBron James, have criticized Morey for his now-deleted post.

On Thursday, protesters in Vancouver carried signs reading “#StandWithHongKong” and “NBA bowed to totalitarian China. We won’t.”

Meanwhile, a separate and slightly larger group rallied in the same area, calling for the league to bring a team back to Vancouver.

The city was home to the Grizzlies from 1995 to 2001, when the franchise moved to Memphis.

“NBA please come back!” read one sign outside Rogers Arena.

Chants of “We want Grizzlies!” also broke out through the arena during the fourth quarter.

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