The unwavering facades of Duncan and Leonard

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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.

  • Kev

    With ‘Whi steadily becoming a more offensively-focused player, I can totally see him turning into a “Better offensively Shane Battier”. They are roughly the same size, and came in with relatively the same skill sets — strong perimeter defense, and were able to knock down the spot-up 3 ball. What I do see Leonard excelling at is rebounding. His large hands and wing span allow him to take full advantage of his 6’7″ frame. And Battier has been in the league since 2001, and its not a shame at all to model your game after one of the better perimeter defenders of the last 10 years.

  • ThatBigGuy

    My dad calls Leonard “Kawhi 5-0″ because Jack Lord had a poker face, and it kinda rhymes.

    The beauty of our team is that if one of our big 3 has a bad scoring night, we have several guys just waiting to fill in. It was obvious that the Clip’s game plan was to try and limit Tony, which they did to a certain extent, but now they have to remember that Timmy can still fill it up, and the a Cavs’ scrub and a rookie are ready to combine for 30. Add in the threat of Jack, Neal, or Diaw pitching in another 12-15 and you have 8 guys who the Clip’s have to guard.

  • Alixander

    @ThatBigGuy, that nickname really fits right now as Kawhi 5-0 is 5-0 in the 2012 NBA Playoffs so far. Perhaps he will wind up as Kawhi 16-0, when it is all said and done? HA! This game was a great symphony of passes and team basketball. Tim, Manu and Tony did great in their roles, while getting solid support from the younger players/late season acquisitions. If RC Buford does not win EOY, than there is no justice! GSG, WOFTT!

  • RGVSpurs82

    It seems that Kawhi’s ceiling could be closer to a Scottie Pippen type (lofty standards I realize), but if he improves his handles he could get close to that pretty soon. His bottom has already exceeded Battier – let’s face it, as a rookie, in this system, and he’s putting up comparable results to Battier’s best season’s, he’s every bit as good Battier has ever been…
    I know we can’t get these numbers from Duncan every night, but I don’t see his game dropping off as many “pundits” have claimed. If he was a “no-name” 25 year old big man playing in these playoffs for a contract next year, he would be playing for a 9 figure contract – even assuming he’d already hit his peak. I realize father time distorts people’s view of a player (that and the fact that at his prime he was the G.O.A.T PF, and now he’s merely one of the best in the league) but let’s face it, Timmy’s game is evolved (he’s lethal in different spots now) and he’s still just as effective as he’s ever been and more so than any big man I’ve seen in these playoffs
    Now Timmy on defense…. well let’s face it he’s 36!! (still playing solid help D though)

  • Tyler

    I would say Luol Deng is a decent comp. Maybe night quite the playmaker yet, but I could see them having similar careers – steady improvement, maybe an All-Star game or two.

  • theghostofjh

    I’d like to see Leonard become a Shawn Marion/Gerald Wallace/Scottie Pippen hybrid. Wouldn’t that would be something special!

  • Titletown99030507d

    While everybody is praising KL he needs to get back to the arc and defend that 3 point shot Butler had on him all night long. KL man was left wide open many times and many times Butler made that shot. You fix that and it’s a blow out sooner than later and Timmy can rest.

  • Bob

    “…but he does things that help win basketball games”

    Same thing with Ginobili, Jackson, Green, Splitter. The Spurs have more good basketball players that do things to win games than in the past few years.

  • JJ

    I became a Kawhi Leonard fan before he even played a minute of time for the Spurs when I found out he doesn’t have a Twitter account and doesn’t even want one. The deal was sealed when he was told by a reporter that he had finished 4th in ROY voting and he said, “congratulations to whoever won.” A young professional basketball player that is only interested in playing and winning basketball games. A novel idea these days. He could only have been a Spur.

  • Stijl

    @Titletown

    And if KL does what you suggest…he doesn’t get the opportunity to garnish the boards he gets. Same goes for Green.

    It’s a designed aspect of the plan in order for the Spurs to garnish boards. I’ll take the open attempts by the opponent so the team can be in a better position to board off a miss.

    Which if you look at the numbers…they’ll miss more than they make. If you are in position to careen the miss…better opportunity to score from the rebound.

  • yogaginobili

    @ stijl

    imo coach Pop never allows poor/lazy defense. If your poor, off u go to the bench. And that is exactly why i agree with Stijl observation. kudos to the coaching and scouting team!