Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The Spurs had just regained the lead after losing it late in the game against the Philadelphia 76'ers. Without Manu Ginobili (out with a hamstring injury), and with Stephen Jackson not producing, Coach Pop relied on Kawhi Leonard to bring the team home.
Leonard played 34 minutes and 37 seconds, the longest of any Spur, and while a fair-weather fan might not think too much of this, consider that the player with the most minutes per game, Tony Parker, averages 32. Not only that, but Leonard's game is on the defensive end. Yet against the 76'ers, he shot 13 field goals (he averages 6 field goals a game), and took 5 3-point attempts (he averages 3 a game).
Needless to say, the man was likely fatigued. It was the Spurs second road game in a row after a back-to-back that started at home. Yikes. Coach Pop needed someone to step up, and he knew that he could rely on Leonard. Popovich has said as much, calling Leonard a "sponge" and even saying he'd become the "face of the Spurs". So when Popovich called Leonard's number in the 4th, he stepped up. With 2:59 left, he stole the ball and dunked on the other end. The next play, Leonard drained a 3.
Unfortunately for Leonard, a play or two later at the 1:31 mark, he hit the floor, scraped his knee and intentionally fouled Jrue Holiday. The camera immediately panned to coach Pop, who had a stunned look on his face. Leonard hobbled over and met Popovich at half-court wincing, and you could read the astonished coach's lips mouth, "Kawhi, why?" The two conversed at half-court as Holiday took his free throw before Leonard limped to the bench. Why would Popovich question Leonard's move? Players have been taught to intentionally foul or call timeout if they are injured. And then as the 76'ers in-bounded the ball, Leonard's face said it all: he knew he shouldn't have done that. The rule is that since the Spurs were over the foul limit, and the foul occurred away from the ball, the 76'ers would be awarded one free throw and possession.
Leonard made a mistake and Pop taught him exactly how he should have handled it. After the exchange at half court, Popovich patted Leonard on the back and let him walk to the bench. Popovich knew Leonard understood the quick lesson he taught in front of 15,346 fans -- just as you'd expect from the face of the Spurs.