The unwavering facades of Duncan and Leonard
AT&T CENTER–Sixteen years separate the San Antonio Spurs oldest and youngest playoff participants, yet to gaze at their equally stone-faced facades is to be convinced that the two had been somehow separated at birth.
Be it approach, demeanor, or facial expressions, there’s not much difference between the battle tested Tim Duncan and rookie Kawhi Leonard. Duncan, a little more versatile in his old age, can make his eyes bigger; Leonard seemingly struggles to even blink. Neither are likely to betray whatever thoughts may be crossing their minds at any given time.
“It’s impossible [to tell what he's thinking],” Manu Ginobili said of Leonard. “He’s always under control, he never gets very upset. He doesn’t get too hyped up. He just plays.”
But does he ever smile?
“Never for more than a second,” Ginobili said. “Maybe a quarter of a second.”
If one shows joy, they may also show frustration, and an opponent must never be allowed to sense frustration. It’s a philosophy that has served Duncan and the Spurs well throughout an NBA career in which which he has proven as unflappable as he has great.
In a game that was at times equal parts sloppy and chaotic, it was Duncan (26 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals) and Leonard (16 points on 5-8 shooting, six rebounds, and three steals) that served as steadying hands.
While the offense came out potent (108 points on 48.8 percent shooting), one could hardly call it sharp with 18 turnovers yielding 17 fast break points. A week of rest had made the Spurs spry, but not without accumulating a little bit of rust.
The Los Angeles Clippers came out with an energy and physicality that belied the grueling stretch of games they just experienced a few days ago. As tends to happen from time to time, Duncan missed a few easy shots and was dunked on. With the same blank stare on his face Duncan calmly collected himself and simply went to work.
“Just like I said before the game we knew it was going to take a while to knock that rust off,” Duncan said. “I missed some shots early and then I got a couple to go. My teammates moved the ball really well and I got a couple layups.”
Behind some tenacious ball pressure applied by Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe the Clippers were able to effectively corral Tony Parker for stretches of the game. The turnovers generated were somewhat reminiscent of last year’s playoff series with Memphis, with everyone but Parker being harassed so badly they couldn’t even turn their head to see where their screen was coming from for fear of being stripped clean.
Never burdened by being asked to carry too much, or bothered when asked to step aside, Duncan provided a vintage performance.
When the ball pressure proved too much for his teammates in pick and rolls, Duncan provided the perfect release valve, reversing the ball quickly, hitting the midrange jumper (3-8), or rolling into open space for a quick layup. When the Spurs offense devolved into a mess of turnovers and poor decisions, Duncan returned to his old stomping grounds on the blocks and steadied the Spurs attack.
“Tim was solid as usual, he’s played like that all year long,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s not going to do anything that’s going to be on a highlight film for TV. A highlight film for coaches possibly.
“He was just being solid, making a great pass, playing the defense that he did, rebounding, he was the anchor.”
These are the kind of performances we’ve come to expect from Tim Duncan even as age has tempered our expectations.
Leonard, however, entered these playoffs as an unknown quantity. And though the depths of his game are as of yet undefined, he’s proving at the very least that no stage is too big for him.
“He’s been a real dedicated player, a quicker learner,” Popovich said. “He’s done a good enough job to make me trust him in the starting lineup.”
It’s hard not to trust Leonard. In a rookie season learning one of the most complicate systems in the NBA, for one of its most demanding coaches, Leonard has thrived without so much as a training camp or adequate practice time.
For a rookie, he’s lacked the extreme peaks and valleys that ail most players going through their first NBA seasons. Instead Leonard has moved through the season at his own steady pace, never stopping to admire his work or lament his mistakes.
Leonard finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting, but how many 20 years olds have the temerity to be thwarted on three consecutive fast break attempts–one of which was a vicious chase down block by Blake Griffin–and then calmly hit his next three-pointer as if nothing happened?
The Clippers attacked Leonard at times, producing a rare night in which Caron Butler had more points than jab steps. But whether it was recovering on a screen to block Chris Paul from behind, the two huge rebounds he pulled down in the fourth, or simply deflecting a pass, Kawhi Leonard made plays happen.
“He seems to have a pretty good knack for the ball. He makes a steal here and there, he’ll get an offensive board here and there, he’ll get a block now and then,” Popovich said. “Obviously he’s a rookie still figuring out what his game is, but he does things that help win basketball games.”
And like Duncan before him, he does so without so much as a hint of a expression.