TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard believes in leading by example.
The Toronto Raptors' star wing fired back at Gregg Popovich on Sunday, after his former San Antonio Spurs coach told reporters Leonard "wasn't a leader."
"It's just funny to me because I don't know if he's talking about last year or not but I guess when you stop playing they forget how you lead," Leonard said, after Toronto's 125-115 win over the Miami Heat.
Leonard, who scored a team-high 29 points in the win, said he's always led with his work ethic.
"Coming into practice every day, just going hard. Coming into these games mentally focused," Leonard said, in his typical even-keel voice. "You can't see things once you're playing on the floor. Guys ask me questions about their matchup or if I see something on the floor. I'm telling guys, 'Go here, go there.'
"Just motivating people, you know what I mean? Just try to lift people's spirits on the floor. That's about it, don't try to get nobody too down and just lift them up."
Leonard's reaction came less than 24 hours after Popovich referenced his former star in a comment about the Spurs' leadership.
"Well, Kawhi (Leonard) was a great player, but he wasn't a leader or anything," Popovich said. "Manu (Ginobili) and Patty (Mills) were the leaders. Kawhi's talent will always be missed, but that leadership wasn't his deal at that time. That may come as he progresses, but Patty and Manu filled that role for us last year, and LaMarcus (Aldridge) came a long way in that regard also."
Popovich's comments came after a follow-up question on the importance of Mills, particularly in the absence of Leonard, Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse stuck up for Leonard. If Popovich didn't see leadership in Leonard, Nurse said he certainly has.
"Obviously he's got a little bit of a reserved personality, (but) he is a little bit more gregarious than everybody thinks. He's pretty funny and the guys really enjoy him, I really enjoy talking to him. He's got a good personality," Nurse said.
"He just did a few little things in training camp as far as getting some guys to go to the gym with him early, he opened up one of his shooting times pre-game to let another guy . . . come shoot with him. Just some little, I think neat things that say a lot about a guy. He does it quietly, but they're leadership things to me."
Leonard missed all but nine games due to a quadriceps injury in his bizarre final season in San Antonio.
Heading into Sunday's game, the 27-year-old was averaging 24.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in 33.1 minutes for the league-leading Raptors.
Nurse, who'd never met Leonard prior to last summer's blockbuster trade, said what he's been most impressed by is his work ethic.
"He's very serious about the game, he puts a lot of time into the game," said Toronto's rookie head coach. "Surprisingly, a good leader. Seen some great leadership traits from him, and he's really good at both ends. That guy can really play both ends and everyone knew he was a great two-way player, but it's nice to have him on your side and see it up close."