Leonard leads the way as Spurs load up on Love

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SAN ANTONIO — Kawhi Leonard fielded questions over the weekend about his role with the team and whether his progress this season had been what he’d hoped it would be. He hasn’t made the type of ascension the most hopeful observers had predicted, but his contributions have been as important as they were last season, if not more so.

With Tim, Tony and Manu still in tow, there’s really no reason for any extra pressure. But against the Timberwolves — sans Ginobili, who was kept out again with tightness in his left hamstring — San Antonio got a team-best 17 points from its swingman in the easy 104-86 win. And it was all done in the flow of the offense that cruised to 56.8 percent shooting on the night.

“I just try to be aggressive with the shots that I do get. I mean, it’s really not for me to score. The three man really is in the corner a lot, and that’s just the offense,” Leonard said on Friday at the team’s practice facility. “I just have to wait for opportunities and see how the game plays out.”

It’s not like his role — whether expanded or mostly similar — is something that’s bothering Leonard. Against Minnesota he did his work on only 11 shots and with a usage percentage (18 percent) less than his season average. But the system was working better than it has for much of the season, especially for that starting lineup. And now that the defense has made a bit of a comeback, that’s becoming a trend again.

The Spurs had the 18th-ranked defense in the NBA during the month of December, according to NBA.com/Stats. But ever since the loss at home to the Knicks, San Antonio has found its footing again on that side of the ball. The team is allowing just 95.4 points per 100 possessions during its current four-game streak, and it’s dropping 114 on its opponents at the same rate.

In this edition of small-sample-size theater, the Spurs allowed just 86 points to a hyperactive Timberwolves team that averages 107 per crazy-paced game. This same Minnesota squad that notched 111 on San Antonio last month on a nearly paralyzing 42 points and 14 boards from Kevin Love was helpless on Sunday night. Even forcing 20 turnovers in the game made little difference.

Jeff Ayres started the previous meeting between these two teams when Love erupted; on this night it was Boris Diaw, the man who shut Love out down the stretch of that previous win, who got the nod. This time, Minnesota’s big man hit just three of his 14 shot-attempts and pitched in just 14 points and seven rebounds, and Bobo refused to let him get comfortable all night.

“They were very physical with Kevin Love everywhere he moved,” T’Wolves coach Rick Adelman said. “We have to figure out a way to help him out a little bit — see if we can’t have an answer for that.”

But that’s a problem Minnesota has to deal with in what is basically a one-star system — a problem the Spurs so consistently exploit. San Antonio made a concerted effort to drive Love off his spots, and while he did have quite a few just rim out, life was made difficult for him.

When the ‘Wolves don’t get good offensive production, they haven’t been able to rely upon their defense to get stops. They’re great at forcing turnovers, which then feed into their chaotic up-and-down offensive attack, but there’s a delicate balance that must be managed when you play that way.

Minnesota allows teams to shoot 47.5 percent from the floor on a nightly basis, including a brutal mark of 65.2 percent at the rim. When opponents are scoring that easily, you have to get big numbers from your star on the other end. The Spurs did everything they could to prevent that from happening.

Diaw’s reputation as a defender is a known commodity within the Spurs’ locker room, but he’s not widely regarded as a stopper of any kind. He’s primarily viewed as a chubby, finesse-style offensive player, but since doing such an admirable job against LeBron James in the 2013 NBA Finals he’s emerged a bit in the public eye as a valuable asset on the defensive side of the ball. Nikola Pekovic talked after the game about the Spurs being very physical with Love and using their “best defenders” to make him uncomfortable, and there was a whole lot of Boris “The Body” Diaw staying in the hip pocket of the ‘Wolves’ best player.

To be clear: much like Dirk Nowitzki on Wednesday, Love was just missing some shots. This wasn’t all Diaw — not by a long shot. He vehemently pushed any post-game talk away from his locker if it had anything to do with how he’s been able to “stop” these great offensive power forwards in recent games. Which is smart. Diaw is a very good defender, but he knows what he’s up against.

Still, he’s become quite good as a two-way forward off the bench. He’s fleet enough of foot to stick with some of these players on the perimeter, he’s got the girth to absorb post-up attempts and he possesses the length to challenge almost any player in his size range. Yes, Love missed some shots he normally crushes, but Diaw continues to prove himself as a go-to defender for that bench squad.

San Antonio hasn’t been challenged too seriously since Tiago Splitter went down with a sprained right shoulder but, regardless, they’ve responded well — especially on defense — in his absence. Hell, even Matt Bonner matched Love’s 14 points on Sunday. The Spurs will have to keep turning to their veteran bench players to help fill the void left by Splitter, then Ginobili, and now Danny Green for the foreseeable future after the guard suffered an injury to his left hand during the Minnesota game.

Leonard played 36 minutes last night, which is a significant jump from his normal playing time. Maybe that role so many have been fixated upon will change over the next month in his teammates’ stead. After all, someone needs to fill the void, and who better than the young star the team has been preserving all season? Leonard has been patient, and this might just be his time to shine.

We’ve seen them do this before on countless occasions, and oftentimes they’ve emerged stronger on the other side of the roadblocks. The “next man up” idiom might be trite, but it’s true; the Spurs embody it, and their not just treading water. This team is starting to play very well.

If San Antonio can manage to keep its head — and arms and legs and feet and hands — while all about them are losing theirs, they’re going to be in pretty good shape.

Notes:

— There were some pretty awesome passing sequences from last night, especially when Matt Bonner was involved as the shot-taker. The Tony Parker – Matt Bonner two-man game in full-effect!