Game 41 Vs. Portland: Spurs 110, Blazers 96 Rec: 25-16 4th in Southwest, 7th in West Streak: W-2
This is probably a sad thing to admit, but I still watch the last two rounds of last season's playoffs on my computer from time to time. I don't know why I do it. There are unseen shows and movies on my DVR, other team's live games I could be watching or I could even --god forbid-- try going outside every now and then and trying to get familiar with my adopted city and maybe meet some new people. Instead, I watch year old Spurs-Thunder and Spurs-Heat games, a Finals series where the best player on the court doesn't even play for that team anymore. It's pathetic, really.
I think I do it because the 2014-15 Spurs haven't given us a whole lot to re-watch over and over. Often, it's been a chore just to do it once, live. Long stretches of ugly, uninspired play, poor, sloppy execution late, and a malaise spread over the team, what some would call a "championship hangover" affecting the whole crew to the point where fellows like Cory Joseph and Jeff Ayres have to be the driving, inspirational forces that fuel a comeback win at home against a Phoenix team that didn't even make the playoffs last year.
The easy answer is to say what the Spurs were missing was Kawhi Leonard, and it must be said that he was completely, totally, wholly awesome Friday night in San Antonio's 110-96 dismantling of a talented but overmatched Portland team that had precious little going for them except for the usual ridiculousness of LaMarcus Aldridge (o what a fine Spur he'd make) and a hot game from unheralded reserve guard C.J. McCollum. Even though Leonard missed a solid month of action with torn ligaments in his right (shooting) hand, he didn't look the least bit rusty in his return, leading the Spurs with 20 points on 8-of-18 shooting while also filling up the box score in his usual custom, with four rebounds, five assists and three steals.
"He adds so much to us in a lot of different ways," noted an excited Gregg Popovich afterward, adding that Leonard wasn't allowed to touch a ball for most of his month out of action but that his return allowed the team to execute "for more of the 48 minutes than I think we have all year."
Leonard showed impressive stamina in logging 30:49 of court time and good vision in finding teammates such as Boris Diaw and Aron Baynes on quick little passes inside the lane on his drives. He flipped in a couple of "and-1" buckets in the fourth quarter and made life hellish for Wes Matthews and the slumping Nicolas Batum defensively, though Pop gave him a break in his first game back by not asking him to check Damian Lillard at all. Leonard made a couple of his trademark open floor one-on-one steals and had another defensive sequence where he got his finger tips on would-be steals three different times in one possession, and while he never did come up with it, he completely wrecked Portland's possession.
"It took me a while just to get my legs under me, get some of the excitement out," said Leonard. "I felt good tonight. The strength coach guys did a good job to keep my conditioning up and (development coach) Chad (Forcier) and (shooting coach) Chip (Engelland) helped me just with my shots and getting my rhythm."
What Leonard provided to the rest of the Spurs was more than what showed up in the box score. When the Spurs are on their game, they're more than the sum of their parts. Really, you have to look at it like Voltron to appreciate it. He's not merely the red lion to Tim Duncan's black lion. He's part of a whole that forms a big-ass robot that saves the universe from the evil forces of whoever the bad guys are in Voltron.
(Perhaps a better analogy would've been the less-well-known but infinitely better toy that was the 15-vehicle Voltron, since there are... you guessed it.... 15 Spurs.)
"I think that has a lot to do with the group," said Popovich afterward when asked if Leonard's return inspired his team as a whole into dominating the Blazers on the glass to the tune of 15-to-2 on the offensive boards, which allowed the Spurs to get up 20 more shot attempts than Portland. "A team feeds off each other and he has been an obvious, important part of how we do things. Everything fits better together. Everybody communicates better. Everybody understands what to do in various situations much better. It is just one game. It's not like we just did something amazing. It's our first really consistent game, so we have got a lot of work to do still."
The look on Popovich's face said otherwise, however, as he uncharacteristically showed difficulty in keeping a poker face. It was a carryover of a game that felt like an exorcism, a reawakening of the four month collage of basketball nirvana we watched last year, a time that led to YouTube compilations galore and tearful sonnets from coaches the world over. From March to June it all just felt like one long 80's sports movie montage, with the Spurs routinely getting contributions from eight, nine, ten guys and laughing on the bench midway through the third quarter, the outcome long decided.
It wasn't a coincidence that Tony Parker looked more like himself than he has in a month and it wasn't a coincidence that the Spurs had 34 assists (four different Spurs had at least five) and it wasn't a coincidence that Diaw was more active defensively, with a chase-down block and a steal and a couple of deflections, than he had been in forever. Most of all you could see it in the third quarter, when Manu Ginobili fed Patty Mills for back-to-back threes and as the second one dropped he furiously pumped his fist, showing more excitement than he had all year.
"We are at a point where we need wins," Ginobili said. "Playing against a great team, we need these type of wins and to feel well about ourselves and I think at that point we were. It was a great feeling and it got everybody excited."
Excited to the point where fans can put away their DVDs and videos from last year? Not quite yet. But tonight, for the first time, there was a flicker of hope that there may indeed be new ones to save when it's all said and done.
Your Three Stars:
3. Danny Green (39 pts)
2. Patty Mills (17 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (40 pts)