This was supposed to be all about Kawhi Leonard.
You knew he wasn’t going to say much about his MVP candidacy, his inheriting Tim Duncan’s status as the gold standard for the San Antonio Spurs or his amazing lead-taking 3-pointer/lead-preserving chasedown block of James Harden sequence against the Houston Rockets last week that displayed in stark relief why “The Klaw” is the premier two-way player in the game.
And that was cool. Knowing that Leonard rarely has anything to say about himself or how he’s become this … this unlikeliest of superstars, you planned to write around him anyway, talk to people around the Spurs and around the league. They would bring out the special qualities that make Kawhi Kawhi, and make the case for how you could proudly vote for him over Russell Westbrook or Harden or LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
“He wasn’t afraid of any challenge,” said the Spurs’ President of Sports Franchises, R.C. Buford, who engineered the then-controversial-within-the-team trade on Draft night in 2011. That trade sent San Antonio’s starting point guard, George Hill, to the Indiana Pacers for the rights to Leonard, who was a well-regarded (but hardly thought of as dominant) forward out of San Diego State.
“He’s so focused and locked in on trying to be a great player,” said veteran center Joel Anthony, who signed with San Antonio in January. “Everyone puts in work. He does the stuff that a lot of the top guys that I’ve played with, I guess you could say he has that same type of makeup. He’s so locked in. It’s not like he talks about it and says it. You can see he understands how important he is to the team, his responsibility, what he has to do to help this team. He does everything.”
“Great players of that caliber, they put in the work, they approach the game in a certain way that others just don’t. ... And Kawhi is special. Kobe [Bryant] was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and Kawhi has that kind of potential."
There would be the comparison with other contemporary greats, like Kobe Bryant.
“Great players of that caliber, they put in the work, they approach the game in a certain way that others just don’t,” said Pau Gasol, who played with and is close friends with Bryant.
“They have a high level of confidence and a high level of aggression in their game,” Gasol said. “And Kawhi is special. Kobe was one of the greatest to ever play the game, and Kawhi has that kind of potential. Now, you have to do it for a long period of time, which is not easy to do, no matter what. Kawhi has taken his game to another level this year, especially at the offensive end, and the most impressive thing is that that really hasn’t taken away from his defense.”
It was a story that would write itself, really. It was Leonard’s time in the spotlight. He’d earned it, just as he’d earned the Finals MVP in 2014 after harassing James and the Miami Heat defensively all series, while detonating in the last three games -- when he averaged 23.6 points and 10.3 rebounds. He was the main reason the Spurs were, again, a legit threat to win the NBA title.
But then Semaj Christon didn’t watch what he was doing. And LaMarcus Aldridge had to take a seat, maybe for a while. And the Western Conference was turned on its head.
For five months, the Spurs and Golden State Warriors have been head and shoulders above the rest of the conference. Houston’s playing .682 ball and hasn’t been close to cracking the top two all season. Utah’s healthy and coming on strong, but is 1-3 so far against the Big Two.
And yet, the Warriors are 2-4 since Kevin Durant went out of the lineup. And the Spurs looked quite different after Christon’s wayward arm hit Leonard in the noggin in the third quarter last Thursday, sending him out of the game for good and putting him in the NBA’s concussion protocol. He missed Saturday’s no-show game against the Warriors, but is expected back tonight against Atlanta (8 ET, TNT).
But Aldridge is another matter. He’ll be out indefinitely after suffering a heart arrhythmia following the game in OKC. And given that he had previously been diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome near the end of his rookie season with Portland in April, 2007, there is obvious concern and uncertainty about when he can return to the floor.
That was on top of what’s going on in the Eastern Conference, with the Cavaliers spinning in circles, now down to two big men after Andrew Bogut’s season-ending freak injury, and the Boston Celtics beating the Warriors at Oracle, and the Washington Wizards’ John Wall and Bradley Beal logging enormous minutes -- the NBA equivalent of a NASCAR driver praying he can make it to the finish line with his gas tank down to fumes. The hottest team in the conference, this morning are the Miami Heat, who no one -- no one -- wants to see make the playoffs and be their opponent in the first round.
A fairly eventful seven days in the Association.
At this point of the season, though, every team is dealing with something. Everyone’s tired, most are beat up physically with something they hope can hold up through the playoffs. This is when the best teams fall back on what they’ve done before, and who they’ve been before, to persevere.
The Cavs still have LeBron, Kyrie Irving and a champions’ muscle memory. Golden State has a team full of players that have been to back to back Finals, and expect to get there again. Everybody else is guessing. Everybody, that is, except the Spurs.
The win Saturday over the Warriors brought San Antonio within a half-game of first place in the West, with home-court advantage throughout the west playoffs within reach. Though the Spurs say that’s not important to them.
“It’s never been,” guard Danny Green said. “It’s not the first time, first year. Obviously, home court is great. But getting better is the most important thing for us. It’s always been. And being healthy at the right time of the year. There’s been times in the past where Pop’s rested guys, no matter what the seeding is. We know we’re in the playoffs; we’re in the playoffs; cool. We feel we have the guys, the capability, the potential, the roster, the staff, to compete with anybody and win, beat anybody, road or home.”
"They’re really careful, being a smaller market team, in who they trust to be their leaders and their max players. And that’s why they’ve been so consistent. It started with David Robinson and Timmy, and Manu and Tony, and now with Kawhi and LaMarcus."
Even with several new faces on the roster and in the rotation, the Spurs still have an entire organization, and two-plus decades of excellence, on which to call. They will need Leonard, of course; if he’s not out for long, they still have a chance, even if Aldridge is out for a while. But no one can predict how someone will react after one concussion, or if they’re more susceptible to more concussions after having one.
They can’t win without Leonard and Aldridge. But they will always compete. It’s how they could come back from 27 down against the Sacramento Kings last Wednesday, with Leonard and Manu Ginobili getting the night off to rest, and still persevere -- a win that Popovich acknowledged was more than the ordinary regular season victory, for him and the team.
“It’s really as advertised,” said David Lee, who signed in San Antonio last summer. “It starts with the great leadership at the top, with R.C. and Pop. As you know, Pop’s definitely the one in charge here. That really simplifies things. They’re really careful, being a smaller market team, in who they trust to be their leaders and their max players. And that’s why they’ve been so consistent. It started with David Robinson and Timmy, and Manu and Tony, and now with Kawhi and LaMarcus. All those guys I mentioned are great character guys and great team guys, and guys that show up to play every day.”
Lee was on the Warriors’ title team in 2015. He was in Boston and Dallas last season. He’s seen winning teams do it in very different ways the last few years.
“We were in Golden State, we listened to music before the game in the locker room, everyone’s laughing, everybody’s playing cards on the plane, everybody’s going out and having a drink together,” Lee said. “It was a very, very loose atmosphere, and when it came down to it, we got the job done and we won a championship. Here, they’ve been very successful, in a completely different way. On the plane, everybody has their own headphones, all the shades are closed on the plane, assigned seats on the plane, assigned seats on the bus. Everything is, guys don’t really do a whole lot with each other off the court, and that’s not in a bad way. But it’s a more veteran team. A lot of the guys have families. But the chemistry is just as good.”
That it has all come together so quickly, with Dewayne Dedmon starting at center and Lee coming off the bench, and rookie Dejounte Murray filling in for Tony Parker at the point several times this season, is a surprise, even with all the experience that Parker and Ginobili and Gasol have, and all of the skill that Leonard and Aldridge display in their primes.
“It’s a statement that Kawhi and LaMarcus, the stability that they and Tony and Manu provide,” Buford said, before Aldridge’s ailment was detected. “And I don’t know that we can underestimate the impact -- we’re at the gym this morning, and there’s Tim out there running script with them.”
Indeed, Duncan still is at the Spurs’ facility many days, with that same arm he throws around the young guys, telling them exactly how to run the play and why Popovich is yelling at them. Every new player knows it’s coming, but it still has to be endured.
“It’s kind of like, ‘oh, okay, there he goes,’ ” Dedmon said.
Undrafted out of USC in 2013, Dedmon spent the last three seasons in Orlando as a rotation guy in the middle, but the Magic threw money into Bismack Biyombo last summer rather than re-sign Dedmon. The Warriors, where he had a cup of coffee his rookie season, and the Detroit Pistons came hard at him in free agency, but Dedmon saw the opportunity to play and get better in San Antonio.
“Like I told the young fella, the rook (Murray), to be able to be drafted here is a great experience,” Dedmon said. “I’ve played for three different teams already. I’ve seen, I’ve been with Golden State. I’ve seen Philadelphia. And I’ve been with Orlando. So I’ve sort of seen everything. To come here first? That’s great.”
Dedmon was part of the Spurs’ bench the first half of the season, providing length and quickness at his position with Jonathan Simmons and Mills. But after Gasol broke a bone in his hand in January, Dedmon became a full-time starter. In his last 15 games as a starter, he’s averaging 8.5 rebounds per game and shooting 71 percent.
Gasol quickly warmed to the idea of coming off the bench when his hand healed. With Leonard the focal point of the offense, and Aldridge needing touches, and Green needing a shot every now and then, Gasol was getting lost in the shuffle.
“Well, after the break, and with my injury, coming back, too, we felt like getting back into the lineup, let’s give it a try, see how it goes,” Gasol said. “It was the right time to try it. Let’s see how the team gels, because it is true that with the first unit, starting off games, I wasn’t as involved as I would have liked to at times. With the second unit, right away, I can be a factor. The ball moves a little more. So let’s give it a try, see how it goes. There’s nothing definite. Because we can’t really try it later.”
A playoff bench featuring Gasol, Ginobili and Mills would be … formidable. But if Aldridge is out for a long period of time, the Spurs might have to put Gasol back in with the starters and figure out how to best use him and Dedmon together. Or, they could start Lee, who’s shortcircuited the normal season and a half or so that most newcomers need to learn all the subtleties of the Spurs’ offenses and coverages.
They will, as they always seem to do, figure it out.
“From the beginning, the genuine feeling from everyone was that everyone knew what we wanted to get done this season,” Mills said. “And everybody bought into it at a very early stage. And it was definitely genuine. You could feel from the new guys that they wanted to fit in, and do their part, understand what their role is to be able to get that done. We’ve had ups and downs, but everyone’s stayed on track, stayed within the process to get that done … because it’s about the big picture.”
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