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The return of Kawhi Leonard restores the Spurs' confidence

Kawhi Leonard heals the Spurs, and maims the Blazers in the process.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

15 years and 173 days ago, the soon-to-be Western Conference Champion Spurs and their radio crew conspired to produce one of my favorite and most exciting memories as a Spurs fan. It was the fourth quarter of the fourth and final game of the 1999 Western Conference Finals, with San Antonio up 3-0 over the Portland TrailBlazers. A win would send them to the Finals to meet either New York or Indiana. That night, I was riding home in my parent's car through the placid streets of downtown Kerrville, listening to Jay Howard on AM 1200.

"5 minutes to the NBA Finals!" he called as the Spurs maintained a double-digit advantage over one-powerful Portland. I looked out the window at the passing streetlights, the smile growing broader on my face. It was finally happening. Years of disappointing early playoff exits were minutes from being washed away.

"3 minutes!", Mr. Howard helpfully reminded me. The Spurs were about to win their tenth straight playoff game, a feat that would stand unmatched by another Spurs team for over a decade. These men, these heroes, were almost certainly a dynasty in the making.

"30 seconds to the NBA Finals!" The euphoria overtook me as I pounded the windows of our old Grand Marquis. We were going to the Finals! We'd beaten KG! We'd shut down the Great Western Forum! Avery Johnson had forced Damon Stoudemire to eat crow!

Years later, Howard's call is still one of my most indelible ante-Finals memories, up there with the Memorial Day Miracle, the Steve Kerr game, Duncan's game 6 winner against Seattle in '05, and Robert Horry showing Phoenix his version of line dancing in '07.

Last night, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs hoped to make another memory against the Damian Lillard-led TrailBlazers. The Hand was back in the house, and immediately made his presence felt with a mid-court swipe of a Wes Matthews pass, a Kawhi staple that led directly to a transition layup. Then, Leonard dropped in a 12 foot jumper off an in-bounds pass. He would sit moments later, but his return to the lineup against Portland would be no Willis Reed-style token appearance meant to inspire the troops. In fact, he would play 31 minutes, longer than any Spur on the night other than Danny Green's 34. Still, the Blazers weren't about to concede the affair just because the team currently in their playoff bracket had finally become whole. Portland coach Terry Stotts started Nic Batum on Tony Parker, and Portland got plenty of bodies into the lane, even mucking up a potential highlight-reel fast break between Tony and Tiago Splitter. Early on, both Parker and Manu Ginobili sported gruesome gladiator gashes on their upper bodies (Tony's on his neck, Manu's on his right arm.)

There's a reason the Blazers, even after a 110-96 defeat, is the only team with an all-time winning record against the Spurs. There's also a reason that Portland is currently the 2nd seed in the Western Conference. But with 10 assists in the first 10 minutes leading to 3-5 shooting from beyond the arc, the Spurs were FINALLY starting to flash some of that championship style. Boris Diaw swatted a Lillard fast-break attempt (perhaps young Dame was a bit tired from celebrating the introduction of his signature shoe back in Portland), and on offense, the Spurs were moving the ball fluently.

Suddenly, the Spurs no longer playing like a 7th seed. They put up 60 first-half points against the best scoring defense in the league. On the defensive end, San Antonio was starting to resemble another Northwestern pro sports team (whose city and name, coincidentally, also starts with 'S' and who are, not coincidentally, also Defending Champions.) The defensive resemblance is especially fitting given Kawhi's ability to switch coverage on anyone, even LaMarcus Aldridge, and bother perimeter ball-handlers deep into the shot clock, if not cause a turnover outright. But if Leonard is Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor on defense, he's Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch on offensive, able to bulldoze his way past defenders and scavenge broken plays with determined improvisation.

After gaining a reputation as relative sieves the last few years, the Blazers are now something of a Legion of Boom in their own right. In addition to their scoring defense, they hold opposing teams to what seems like an impossible 28.9% 3-point shooting. Say what you want about Portland's bench, their coach, or their lack of playoff chops - this team is a legit contender. Halfway through the season, they have the record, the stats, and the swagger that the Spurs might have had this year, had Pop not decided to use a cursed Mayan temple as a wine cellar in the off-season.

Given that, it was unsurprising to see the Spurs keep the Blazers in the game by turning the ball over and committing some stupid fouls in the third quarter. You could hardly blame them, since nothing has been scarier lately than a double-digit Spurs lead. Even with Kawhi back, there was always a possibility the demons would show up again, especially against a team like Portland. "It took me a while to get my legs under me," Leonard said after the game, "get some of the excitement out," It was a surprisingly candid and revealing comment from a guy who makes Duncan sound loquacious. While the Spurs looked like their old beautiful selves through much of the middle quarters Friday night, you could also sense that, once they got the lead, they were a bit too eager to be done with this game. It was as if the team feared that prolonging things would see the return of those untrustworthy "new" Spurs.

Imagine a prisoner set free after a long sentence; he's overjoyed at his freedom, but also a bit uncertain and even distrustful of it. Freedom is challenging to someone who's been confined, and it takes time to relearn. As my generation learned from watching the great prison documentary The Shawshank Redemption, not everybody makes it back (also, don't ask to go home on your first night.) So even though the Spurs' lead over the Blazers got as high as 18 in the third quarter, Portland always seemed to be one run, one series of defensive stops and/or Lillard outburst away from dragging the game back to the dark place that's been all-too-familiar to the Spurs this year. It's just what this year has trained us to expect.

San Antonio started the fourth quarter on a 6-0 run; given that they had done the same to start the first two overtimes of their triple-overtime loss in December, a 6-0 run could almost be construed as a bad omen. With Leonard resting, Portland kept running switches and got some good looks for Aldridge, their 7-foot jump-shooting robot, which kept the margins in the low teens. But then Kawhi re-entered the game, a game he had already decided the Spurs would not lose. His first few possessions were devoted to distributing the ball, and his feed to Boris Diaw restored the Spurs' 18 point lead. Then he looked for his own points, muscling his way to the rim and flashing past Chris Kaman for a twisting And-1.

The West's #2 team vanished in a cloud of missed jumpers and poor defensive rotations. 5 minutes later, Will Barton was auditioning for the dunk contest and the tweeters or tweeting and the bloggers were hammering on their laptops about how THE SPURS ARE BACK, BABY! or OH NO, THE SPURS ARE BACK!! or WAS REALLY HOPING KAWHI WOULD SPEND HIS DOWNTIME RETHINKING CORNROWS!

Aside from the emotional uplift Leonard brings to his beleaguered squad, he (along with fellow returnee Patty Mills) brings a certain brand of pugnaciousness common to youth, as well as to those whose legacy is still in it's early chapters. Yes, Kawhi and his legendary finger-span fills the entirety of his side of the floor, swallowing up errant passes and drives to the hoop, and on offense he pushes and probes and pounds, refusing to quit until that wretched rock slides through the netting. (In this game, particularly, a quiet anger roiled beneath Kawhi's every move to the basket and his every hurl of the ball at the rim.) On the break, he combines with Green to form a Bengal tiger tandem against a bunch of Hello Kitties. All of those things are reasons why the Spurs should be the favorites to win the title with him, and absolutely cannot win one without him.

But maybe the primary reason Leonard is so key is that he's still so young. Not so much young in the sense of being sprier or more physically resilient than Manu "I Still Have More Hair Than Kaman" Ginobili or Tim "Every time I Fall Down With Minimal Contact, Oldmanshirt Has Visions of a Life Alert Commercial" Duncan, but in the sense that Kawhi has so much left to accomplish. In a decade and a half, the Big 3 has earned a combined 13 rings, 21 All-Star appearances, 4 Finals MVPs and 2 regular season MVPs. After so many years, the burden of success can start to weigh you down, even if you've proven yourself by repeating the task year after year. Last night, though, one Spur looked unburdened, and shook an entire team out of its malaise.

"He made everybody else feel more confident," Ginobili said.

Restoring his team's confidence is a start, but Kawhi Leonard's not done. Confidence ebbs and flows, but he's after something more permanent, more indelible.

Kawhi's ready to make some more memories.

Game Numbers

34 - Total assists, Spurs

32 - Total rebounds, Portland

+13 - Offensive rebound advantage, Spurs

+20 - Shots attempted, Spurs

+25 - Spurs offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) with Leonard on the floor

Big Picture Numbers

41 - Number of games played by the Spurs this season

20.8 - Number of minutes the Duncan-Splitter-Leonard-Green-Parker starting lineup (the "real" Starting Lineup) has played this season

53 - Number of points the Starting Lineup has scored this season (117.6 points per 100 possessions, or 122.3 points per 48 minutes - basically, it's a pretty good lineup. Pop should use it more often.)

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