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Kawhi Leonard leads Spurs past Nuggets, 91-80

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Leonard did it all to carry the Spurs to an easy road win without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.

Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard carried the Spurs to their fourth straight win. He had 25 points, seven rebounds, six assists, four steals and five blocks in San Antonio's 91-80 road victory against the Nuggets. He was even more impressive than the stats suggest as he single-handedly changed the momentum of a game that was looking dire for the Spurs, who were without Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan.

As far as rest games go, the Nuggets in Denver in the first game of back-to-back was not a bad option, at least on paper. They lack an imposing interior presence and are a bottom 10 team on both offensive and defensive rating. As long as the team was ready to execute and play with energy, a return to San Antonio with a win was likely, regardless of who suited up.

Yet the matchup had "trap game" written all over. The Spurs still don't have that autopilot to carry them through bad stretches and were facing a hungry opponent in a notoriously tough arena following Thanksgiving. If not for a terrific Kawhi Leonard performance, it could have gone down to the wire.

The defense was as good as it has been all season to start the game but the offense was stuck in mud, as Pop likes to say. The ball didn't move with purpose, allowing the Nuggets to sniff out what the Spurs were trying to do. A lot of one-on-one offense resulted in late-clock field goal attempts. Bad shot selection and unforced turnovers prevented the Spurs from putting enough points on the board to create separation. After one, the score was tied at 16 with half of the Spurs' points coming courtesy of LaMarcus Aldridge.

As the second quarter started, it looked like it was going to be a long night. The bench, which was clearly missing Manu terribly, got into an 11-point hole to start the second period. The starters began to chip away at it but couldn't close the gap. Then Gregg Popovich decided to bench Aldridge and go small with Boris Diaw at center and the game changed. Kawhi Leonard simply took over on both ends with a lineup well-suited to fit his strengths. The Spurs finished the half with a 10-0 run courtesy of the Parker-Simmons-Leonard-Anderson-Diaw unit and would never trail again.

That doesn't mean the Nuggets didn't make a run, of course. The Spurs got a little overconfident to start the second half. After being a huge part of the second-quarter surge, Tony Parker failed to contain rookie Emmanuel Mudiay while Leonard gave Danilo Gallinari some room to operate. As the Nuggets tied the game, Pop made adjustments. Once again, the answer was small-ball, as David West manned the center position next to four perimeter players. From then on, Kawhi Leonard picked up where he had left off.

Leonard scored 13 third-quarter points and was everywhere on defense, making up for the absence of a rim protector by either keeping his man in front of him or getting blocks or deflections inside. In those two middle quarters he had 23 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals and four blocks. He made teammates better as well, assisting in three of Jonathon Simmons' four baskets. His energy rubbed off on Anderson, who played smart defense and did a little bit of everything. Kawhi simply carried an undermanned team to a tough road win.

Unfortunately Leonard came up one steal short from being the second Spur to log a 5X5 game (five or more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) after David Robinson. The game won't be as easy to find on Basketball-Reference years from now but those who watched it won't need a landmark stat line to remember it. It was one of those nights in which Leonard transcended mere star level and, at least temporarily, reached that rarefied air that only the true franchise players get to experience.

Game notes

  • Seriously, if you missed this game, find a way to watch it and focus solely on Leonard on the second and third quarters. You won't regret it.

  • LaMarcus Aldridge has not once looked as smooth as a Spur as he did in Portland but was key to keeping San Antonio n it during a terrible first quarter. He struggled as the sole rim protector of a small lineup but he's earned some leeway with me thanks to his hustle. He was only on the court for 19 minutes, so hopefully he will be spry for Saturday's game against the Hawks.

  • Tony Parker continues to look much better than anyone expected him to look this early. He finished with 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting with five assists to boot. His defense remains suspect -- Pop benched him after Mudiay took it to him in the third quarter -- but he's doing a good job of providing a steady hand when needed and looking for his shot when that's the best course of action.

  • We had a rare great all-around bench game. Five subs got at least 19 minutes and all of them responded by providing game-changing energy. We are used to seeing Patty Mills (nine points, three rebounds), David West (six rebounds, two steals) and Boris Diaw (six points, five assists, two assists) contribute. 

    I was not, however, expecting 12 points from Jonathon Simmons or a very good 29 minutes from Kyle Anderson. Every season there's a game in which Pop goes to his bench for a spark and gets it. Sometimes that carries over to the rest of the year. Hopefully this was that game. 

  • Boban Marjanovic had his first NBA start and did well on the limited time he was on the floor, scoring a couple of points, pulling down four rebounds and logging one assist in just over six minutes. He struggled containing the pick and roll but that was true for the whole team. Boris Diaw replaced him to start the third quarter but it wasn't a bad game for Boban. The Nuggets are just not a good matchup for him.
  • As a longtime fan of Danillo Gallinari's game, it's great to see him healthy. It's intriguing to imagine how he would fit in a team with playoff aspirations. The Grizzlies -- who were interested at one point -- would make the perfect landing spot. It's not going to happen because the Nuggets will rightfully ask for a lot for a skilled player on a favorable contract that they can still use. Still fun to speculate about the fate of one of the true impact players that could realistically be available via trade.

Up next

The Spurs will face the Hawks in San Antonio on Saturday on a SEGABABA. Manu and Tim will be rested and so will Aldridge. Let's get that fifth consecutive win.

For the opponent's perspective, visit the fantastic Denver Stiffs.