San Antonio Spurs 103, Chicago Bulls 89: Kawhi Leonard’s testing grounds

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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.

  • Austin dw

    At 3:48 in the 4th kawhi took a jab step while palming the ball in one hand, took a dribble then pulled up and hit a jumper. Kawhoa

  • jamberg

    We just have to give a ton of credit to the front office for Kawhi. The one time we make a serious push into the lottery in the Duncan era we get what we hope (and expect) to be a future All Star. No one does it better than RC, Pop and Co.

  • Neverthehero

    “The Spurs don’t need Leonard to be the guy he was in Las Vegas.” We needed this guy last year vs. OKC if you are talking about scoring…………… Just listening to the new B.S. Report, I can appreciate the notion that the Spurs are now a regular season team (like the late 90’s Jazz team) but I don’t like Simmons and Bucher being so dismissive of what they do achieve.

  • GoSpursGo

    With Kawhi, the only question is, can he be a primary star, or is he more of a complementary player. With his broad toolset, but lack of exceptional athleticism or pure scoring ability, I see him as a good complementary star. So the Spurs will still need to draft or sign a number 1 guy once Parker starts to fade.

  • GoSpursGo

    On a different note, I liked what I saw of Nando. I would love, once Duncan comes back, of Parker had an ‘injury’ for a few games and let Nando run with the first team. I think he could be a very solid ortation player.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christopher-Sauer/645387978 Christopher Sauer

    Lack of exceptional athleticism?!?!? Holy crap, seriously? You’re not allowed to post for at least a month.

  • merkin

    Even w/o the big 3, the alt. unis are still undefeated.

  • DorieStreet

    I can see the progression as the season rolls along. The first time I viewed him playing, he unsure and hesitant. Now, de Colo comes the floor with a purpose–he knows what’s needed at that juncture of the game. Memo to Nando: shoot more!

  • DorieStreet

    I think he can become a primary star. And I hopes he never loses his quiet demeanor. As his skills, basketball IQ, and spectacular play increase, his low-key, non-emotional manner on the court could be a pysche-out weapon to his opponents.

  • Sir Timothy

    Leonard is more athletic than any Spur since Tim Duncan of about 4 years ago. And what is this “lack of pure scoring ability?” Christopher is right, but let’s up your penalty. You are not allowed to post for two months.

  • Sir Timothy

    Let me apologize for saying that I wanted Redick. He can stay with Orlando – they need him. I will keep Danny Green. Green played some serious defense last night. I might trade Green for Durant straight up but otherwise we need to keep him!

    Also, BIG GAME for Boris Diaw. He played so smart last night. There was a fast break where Diaw played both the big man and the guard and blocked the shot leading to a quick open three on the other end for the Spurs. Diaw may not be the guy to start for us in the playoffs – I am certainly hoping for a Splitter/ healthy Tim Duncan combo alongside Parker, Green and Leonard. But a bench that has Ginobili, Diaw, Jackson, Neal, etc. is a source of comfort.

  • Margason

    EVERY player on the SPURS team will be a complimentary star…That is how the system works…we don’t have one person that scores 30 points a game because we lead the league in assists…Pop is all about being complimentary to each other!

  • junierizzle

    Man, only the Spurs can entertain without any of their stars. Leonard was awesome. The thng that impressed me the most was his ability to get to the cup. Can he be a primary star? WHO knows? But I can see him emerging like Paul George-who the Spurs interviewed. I agree that the Spurs don’t need this Leonard now. But I hope they unleash him here and there. Sometimes you just need a guy that can take his man off the dribble and score, no play or screen needed.

    Favorite play: Leonard taking into Gibson’s chest for the score. Also that dunk on the.fastbreak. was Durant-esque.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=173600134 Ryan McShane

    I think he meant he’s not explosive laterally/can’t change direction quickly (just think of all of the charging fouls called against him earlier this season). Andre Iguodala had even those traits (plus pretty much everything Kawhi has) and still couldn’t carry that Philadelphia team. Danny Granger is a similar story in Indiana (pre-George Hill/Paul George/David West). Kawhi’s athleticism lies in his strength, jumping, and length. I’m not sure if Iggy had a sense for the game like Kawhi coming up though. Time will tell, and Kawhi knows that nothing major is expected of him now, but that the Spurs have long term plans for him. Kawhi has developed into one of the top 5 players from his draft (if not higher), and that’s already quite an accomplishment after being drafted 15th.

  • Len

    Simmons and Bucher are star f##kers. They are wanna be radio/movie stars more than basketball analysts. Who cares what they have to say?

  • timetodienow1234567

    I just read an article on bleacherreport that the Spurs are going after J-Smoove. If they don’t have to give up Manu/Tony/Timmy/Kawhi then they should go for it. I don’t think ATL pulls the plug without Leonard in the deal, but one can hope.

  • Jacob

    http://espn.go.com/nba/trademachine?tradeId=bx2qr8
    Just another trade proposal that I’d like some feedback on. With Barbosa and Rondo out for the year, Boston’s hopes of making any serious noise in the post season seem bleak at best. Now might be a good time to approach them with the opportunity to cut wasted dollars and allow them to start the rebuilding process while we pick up a solid big man for the front court and a versatile small forward to help us guard the KG’s and Lebrons of the NBA.

  • Jacob

    http://espn.go.com/nba/tradeMachine/?tradeId=aqayffe

    Here is a trade that I’d like feedback on. Tried to post earlier but the link was ineffective.

  • Bruno

    Stats show that Nando/Duncan aren’t good together.

  • Bruno

    Regular season team? 2 games and 3 refs from making the finals last season.

    This season OKC is weaker and Spurs is better…

  • Bruno

    Boris is very talented, but he should grab some rebounds….

  • Graham

    Boris is great for logging some heavy minutes off the bench at this point, especially against smaller teams if our offense needs a boost.

  • Graham

    Don’t worry about it too much. I see the logic in dismissing the Spurs, honestly. However, things like that only help keep us under the radar. Writing us off as a ‘regular season team’ only makes it easier for the team to be motivated to prove the doubters wrong, and easier for the Thunder to overlook us saying ‘We figured those guys out, we’re good.’

    I wouldn’t exactly call them dismissive, either. Bucher seemed more on the Thunder camp, Stein solidly in the Spurs camp, and Simmons sounded on the fence. Probably a good indication of general ‘expert opinion’ around the sports circut.

  • Andrew G

    I think Kawhi is the ultimate Spur: our fans like to say the Spurs “fly under the radar”, Kawhi flies under our own radar. He is the MAN, and time will prove me right. First two games of the season he had 10 steals… I was drooling. Sean Elliot likes to say the NBA hasn’t learned about Kawhi yet, and it won’t do them any better when they do, he’ll already be on the breakaway ready to dunk.

    Also, I can’t fathom why people think we need to trade ANY of our pieces. We made it to the WCF last year with this same lineup. The only thing that sticks out in my mind is the two freaking offensive fouls called on Manu in the final 3 minutes of the series compliments of one Joey Crawford.

  • CMAC

    Kawhi, MAY GOD KEEP YOU HEALTHY AND HUMBLE YOU WILL.BE A HOUSEHOLD NAME LIKE KOBE OR LE BRON
    PEACE.CMAC BELLFLOWER,CA

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  • Titletown99030507d

    We don’t. Or at least I don’t. If Manu keeps spoon feeding Blair off the bench then the resurgence of Blair can add to the already greatness that the Spurs are. Oh my God! The fear that will heighten in the opposing playoff teams once they have to come and answer to the Spurs.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Not happening, besides the dude wants a max deal and we are not giving him a deal that will negate any wiggle room for the future. Not to mention he may walk at the end of the season and head to the big cities for greener pasture$. It’s all about the dough. He’s still pissed about Joe Johnson getting all that bank.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I like that but looks like Blair needs to be on the court with Manu at all times. I kind of miss Splitter playing with the bench. Although for 20 or so games (except last night) he’s been a beast in production and is able to get more rebounds when he’s not on the court with Timmy I would like to see him get more roll to the rim space. It’s just too conjested in there for both Timmy and Splitter. That’s why in the 3rd and begining of the 4th quarters he tends to pick up his game then his production drops once Timmy gets on with him. then 1 minute or 2 later he sits. Splitter’s been getting big minutes lately but if he can average 20-25 minutes with the bench I could live with that.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I think Tiago is even getting more rebounds than Boris.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Leonard is an All-Star next season that is if they run more plays for him.

  • mike

    Kawhi is not a spectacular or explosive athlete for a wing in the NBA. He is an average leaper and about average speed. He has good footwork. His length and hand speed are spectacular. It’s hard to find a comp for him. He isn’t the athlete or passer (at least currently) that iguodala is. (he is a MUCH better shooter) He is similar to Luol Deng with a better 3 pt shot (some of that may be the system/talent getting him better shots) and again the better hands.

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