San Antonio Spurs 103, Chicago Bulls 89: Kawhi Leonard’s testing grounds
Kawhi Leonard is not a star. Sometimes you wonder if he’s even the fourth best player on the Spurs. He has a quiet demeanor that makes him endearing, but that personality trait can show up on the floor as Leonard goes long stretches without reminding you he’s in the game. He can be a ghost.
Over the summer, around the time Leonard tore up the Las Vegas Summer League for a couple games, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said something about how they see Leonard eventually becoming the face of the Spurs. With memories of Summer League Kawhi still fresh in everyone’s minds, most of us forget the eventually part.
The Spurs don’t need Leonard to be the guy he was in Las Vegas. There will be time for that. Those two games in Sin City were just Coach Pop’s attempt at future-proofing this San Antonio Spurs franchise. An investment, if you will. The Spurs want Leonard to fit in around the current stars and plays his role in the present, occasionally flashing that brilliance on offense that is oh-so-tantalizing.
But mostly these days, Leonard’s importance is on defense. The Spurs will bring him along slowly over the few seasons like they have with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, mostly because they have that luxury. It’s funny that a team in win-now mode can actually place less of a burden on a young piece than one stuck in the lottery.
Monday night’s 103-89 road win over the Chicago Bulls provided a glimpse of what life could be like with Leonard as the silver and black’s go-to guy. Early returns are positive. Already missing Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, Pop also sat Tony Parker (knee swelling…right) and Stephen Jackson (some sort of personal matter). That left Leonard as the team’s main offensive cog.
In a variety of ways, Leonard racked up a career-high 26 points on 11-of-18 from the field, four rebounds, four assists and no turnovers in almost 44 minutes of action on the second night of a back-to-back. According to the Express-News‘ Mike Monroe, Leonard’s minute total was the most for a Spur in a regulation game this season.
Leonard’s production resembled one of those equations where players think, “If I just get a couple of baskets in the post, a couple on the break, a couple more off of offensive rebounds and a few more on kick-outs, I’ll have 20 points, easy.” Everybody thinks that when they play, but Kawhi actually pulled it off.
Leonard posted up Luol Deng, scored baskets in transition, drove in isolation situations and knocked down open shots in the rhythm of the offense. When the Spurs needed a basket down the stretch, the ball was usually in Leonard’s enormous hands. And when it wasn’t, it probably should’ve been.
The more Kawhi scored, the greater his confidence grew. Late in the game as the Spurs were teetering on the edge of putting it away, Leonard unleashed a nasty crossover and got to the rim for a layup. It was one of the more un-Spursian things you’ll see in silver and black. San Antonio is not an isolation team, and for just one play Leonard had flipped Pop’s philosophy on its head.
Pop’s philosophy has since been returned right side up, but one quick dribble-drive from Leonard did some damage to the psyches of those of us who love the ball movement and generosity that San Antonio’s system provides.
The Spurs are in a position of strength in this long regular season. The system is humming so smoothly that some of the (older) starters can be rested as the Cube Steaks still pull out victories. As observers, we’re afforded the opportunity to a change of basketball scenery. Instead of watching the same players every night, the Spurs went from the veteran-led San Antonio of old to a underdog featuring a potential future star. The narrative changed in a instant.
And with each basket that Leonard drained against the Bulls on Monday night. We slowly pieced together the puzzle that Gregg Popovich had apparently solved sometime before the end of last summer. He’s always been ahead of the curve.