Maybe you've seen it. Maybe you were privy to a few of the articles that correctly pointed out its arrival. Or maybe you are one of the people just now realizing that the New Age of Spurs Basketball, the Post-Big Three Era, is upon us already.
If any fans still have doubts about Kawhi Leonard's impending max contract, or his future as the face of a franchise he already wears on his face every game (stoic, workmanlike, brutal, calculating and dominant) they should watch the first five minutes of the fourth quarter of Sunday night's game against Memphis. And those doubts will be erased for good.
It wasn't as if Leonard was being the all-around menace he can be on defense, or the one man fast break he has so successfully cribbed from Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Nor was he doing inhuman rebounding feats he's made almost normal over the past couple of seasons.
No, the fourth quarter of the Grizzlies game saw Leonard become something very different - a ball-dominant, one-on-one machine -- scoring from anywhere and putting a team on his back in the halfcourt. It's a stretch, but watching Kawhi spin baseline and drain multiple fallaway eighteen footers was decidedly Kobe Bryant/Tracy McGrady/Vince Carter-esque, in the best way.
Kobe, at his best, used his fundamental belief in himself and the endless work he put into his game to rationalize that going one-on-one was the best course of action for his team getting a basket. Whether Leonard was doing the same consciously is immaterial. Leonard, in the fourth quarter of a game against the then number two seed in the Western Conference, decided that he was the best option. And he was right.
Supporting cast members don't do that. Pieces being bet on for the future don't do that very frequently. Since Leonard finally got healthy, what we've seen from him is a sign of a sea change in the way the Spurs work. This season's Championship Hopes rest on the shoulders of two aging Hall of Famers, one of whom is aging so well it's nearly impossible to notice a blip in his performance. But for now, and for the future that is visible and just immediately out of sight, this is Kawhi Leonard's team. The Spurs may not live and die on the back of Leonard, but they nearly always live when he is who he knows he can be.
* * *
Many people have, for the last three years, thought that the impending death-rebirth of the Spurs Machine would be a dreadful thing. Watching the Old Silver and Black Lady sail into the West, only to be reincarnated anew through some luck of the lottery. But in this league you can't plan on luck. Instead, what we as fans are being treated to is a beautiful transformation of Spurs Basketball. Something reminiscent of the past, but built for the future.
What follows is in no way meant to belittle the immense contributions of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and (to a lesser extent) Tony Parker. Although small in their contributions in the final box score, Duncan and Ginobili were pivotal to key sections of this win over the Memphis Grizzlies; Duncan's passing and defense of Marc Gasol was understated and magnificent, Ginobili's passing even moreso, somehow keeping the foreign legion from being nothing more than the Boris Diaw Party Hour.
Nevertheless, basketball is fundamentally a game about scoring baskets and preventing the other team from scoring; in those key ways, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker were only mildly significant. Parker tried to get himself going early, but finished the half with just two points.
Ginobili, was largely a non-factor in this game. A beautiful pass to a sprightly Patty Mills aside, Ginobili was nothing more than a craftier Marco Belinelli, struggling around screens and sometimes making ill-advised moves around the court. He finished the night with a 4-4-3 on 1-3 shooting, and only registered a +4 in 20 minutes of play in which the Spurs never trailed.
Duncan, ever the stalwart, was similarly flummoxed. The Grizzlies have done an admirable job of trying to solve for Duncan's titanic presence on defense, and with the calls going how they were (touchy on rebounds, one of Duncan's weaknesses given his weight loss over the past three years), Pop sat Tim halfway through the third with four fouls. And San Antonio was staring down a suddenly frisky Grizzles team who had pulled within four.
Instead, the Spurs were buoyed by a bevy of (relatively) younger guys. San Antonio has had 14 different leading scorers this season. But while it's typical to get a supporting cast game in mid-January, against a scrappy upstart or even lottery bound team in trouble, it's another thing to watch the venerable, tenacious and gritty Memphis Grizzles fall prey to Tiago Splitter, a Kobe Bryant-esque Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker: Closer.
A quick moment on Parker before moving on. Parker struggled so mightily, and tends to struggle against Mike Conley, that it was great to see him take over the endgame. Refs know the Grizzlies are going to try and rough you up - they plan for that type of game accordingly. Parker doesn't work in a game like that, and Conley's wiles defending him are only added frustration. But to see Parker uncork the manic, unrelenting, hard-dribbling ferocity that he closed the fourth quarter with was a sight for sore eyes.
It's been a long road back for Tony Parker since the dregs of February and Early March. He's not fully out yet. But nights when he can close like that are reminders that, even at 31, Parker's got a long career ahead of him, potentially as the Co-captain of the New Age Spurs.
We went to him and he went to himself.
- On Kawhi Leonard; as accurate as can be. Pop says in 9 words what I couldn't in 1200.
No doubt. It's Kawhi.
But as I am just now realizing that I forgot to talk about Tiago, and to a lesser extent, Danny Green, I'll do that now. Tiago and Danny are typically seen, when they have good nights, to be products of a Spurs Machine that is humming along at its normal, world-destroying pace. For the most part, that's true. But on nights like this fans should take time out to appreciate how far both of these players have come in their development as starters and key cogs in the Spurs Machine.
Danny is going to get paid. Big Time. His services are so plug-and-play into other systems it's ridiculous. He is the best shot blocking wing in the game. He has a deadly three point stroke. He would be known as a lockdown defender if he didn't play so much next to the living embodiment of a black hole with giant hands. But this season we have seen Danny do things that he's never done, and things that will serve him well wherever he goes; shoot inside the arc, pass well and, most importantly, dribble. I used to joke on my nights on the PtR Twitter feed that Danny dribbling is about the worst outcome of a Spurs possession. That is no longer the case, and I feel I must say that Danny Green has transformed himself into a venerable two-way player. Wherever he goes (and I hope he stays), he'll flourish.
Tiago is similar. I used to think the Tiago hook was the second worst outcome of a Spurs possession. I still don't think it's ideal, but I watched Tiago Splitter genuinely attack the amorphous blob of ill-will and stubbornness that is Zach Randolph and frequently come out the winner in the deal. Sure, he was often helped along by Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, but Tiago showed mad moves himself. Additionally, he played that workmanlike defense on Randolph that we've come to take for granted. It's easy to forget, but I will restate it here because Tiago reminded me with his play tonight; this is a guy who shut down Dirk Nowitzki, Lamarcus Aldridge and Chris Bosh in one playoff run, oftentimes single-handedly. He's one of the best post defenders in the game, and his return to the starting lineup is the reason the Spurs defense has graduated from merely very good to pretty damn great this past month.
- 18 - straight games with a Kawhi Leonard steal. Just in case you were thinking about dribbling a basketball around Kawhi Leonard any time soon: DON'T.
- 16 - straight games with the Spurs holding a double digit lead. the Spurs are 13-16 in those games, the losses coming to Dallas, New York (ugh) and Kyrie Irving. Just for your information, other than the putrid Dallas game, the Spurs are two very outlier-y fourth quarters away from being 15-1 over their last sixteen. I'd say they're back.
- 93 - seconds the Spurs have trailed in a basketball game since last Wednesday morning. We knew this three game stretch was going to be tough. We don't know a lot of smart things, it appears.
- 15 - straight points by Kawhi Leonard to start the fourth quarter. Simply unbelievable.
Run the Tweets
Sticking Kawhi Leonard on 59-year-old Vince Carter isn't very nice.— Michael Erler (@MichaelErlerSBN) March 29, 2015
Grizzlies fans might gripe that this game would've gone differently if Tony Allen had played. I vehemently disagree. Also pour one out for Vince Carter, who finally looks like he's done in this league. We'll always have you dunking over a seven foot tall European, Vinsanity. Oh, and that RIDICULOUS dunk contest.
Marc Gasol is totally blowing his audition.— Jeff McDonald (@JMcDonald_SAEN) March 29, 2015
Setting aside the fact that I think we all know in our hearts that Marc Gasol is in no way leaving Memphis, I hope that most San Antonio fans don't judge him by his somewhat mediocre performance tonight. Marc Gasol is an unbelievable talent, and pairing him with Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on defense (and maybe even Tim Duncan?) would be simply unfair.
Think teams should get the ball under their own basket after forcing a shotclock violation. Better reward for a great defensive possession— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) March 30, 2015
I LOVE this idea.
Witness the majesty of the "Duncan face" forming in slow motion. pic.twitter.com/LqXmcrB4Zi— Jesus Gomez (@JejeGomez_PtR) March 30, 2015
Belongs in the inevitable museum we erect for GIFs.
Parker misses point blank floater, snapping Spurs streak of 23 points in 10 possessions to open 4th.— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) March 30, 2015
Play-by-play for Leonard's 4th-quarter outburst: Two free throws 14-footer 14-footer 15-footer 15-footer 17-footer 3-pointer— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) March 30, 2015
I'm sorry, but that's just pure early-2000s shooting guard brutalization right there.
Apropos of nothing... but damn, McHale. What a villain.
Be healthy this spring!!! Drag your family and friends out there if you have to. Learn the history surrounding you. Explore. Have fun.— Craig Sager II (@CraigSagerJr) March 30, 2015
I'm not sure what I have to say. I labor under the idea that it is good enough to post a simple #SagerStrong, and leave the personal stuff out of it. I try not to be solipsistic, or narcissistic in my writing. Most often that fails. So to it fails now. Most of us have seen cancer in our families. Some are luckier than others, some less. I remember sitting in the hospital hearing that, on two separate occasions, my loved ones had cancer. I remember mustering the stiff upper lip. The smile and tightly held hand as a symbol for the resiliency of the human spirit against such a devastating, confounding and merciless disease. I remember watching chemo. Raditaion. Ports. Transfusions. Transplants. Surgery. You never forget the horrors of walking into a room and thinking it might be time to start saying goodbye.
Likewise you never forget the elation, defiant and victorious and spirited joy that comes from defeating cancer. The break in the assault. The forced retreat of an enemy worn down by scientific progress. A more winning human moment I have not experienced.
But for what it's worth (nothing), and I don't know if this is true, but the real crime, the real test of human will and soul, is that moment weeks/months/years down the line when cancer returns, as it so often does. By then, they say, it should feel like a battle to be beaten, not a struggle against the unknowable future. But somehow it feels the opposite; the imposing hand relentlessly inching its way forward into your loved ones life. The second time, to me, was harder. Which is a roundabout way of saying that Craig Sager Jr.'s tweet above brought me to tears in the AT&T Center. It is so true and heartbreaking and resilient as to be a model for us all in the face of an enemy who doesn't have a conception of when to relent. I am not a praying man, but I pray for Craig Sager and all other cancer warriors tonight. #SagerStrong.
- That was heavy, so why not end on something light? In case you missed it, Jeff Green Statue of Liberty'd Aron Baynes into another dimension.