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State of the Spurs: The emergence of Kawhi Leonard

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Hot shooting, a home-heavy schedule, and the emergence of a budding star meant the Spurs posted their best month of basketball since 2014.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Holy cow. "Beware the Spurs of March," indeed. You can sort the stats several different ways (efficiency differential, true shooting %, assist to turnover ratio) and the Spurs come out at or near the top of the league for the penultimate month of the regular season. No, it wasn't the utterly dominant 16-0 blitzkrieg from last March, but 12-3 is still good enough to qualify for the team's most dominant month of the season.

One area of lingering concern is the team's performance on the road. March was a very home-heavy month, with 10 of the 15 games being played at the AT&T Center. Two of the Spurs' March losses came on the road, one of which continues to live in infamy (the Knicks game) the other a prolonged meltdown in Dallas (alternately, "The Monta Ellis Game.") Add it all up, and the team posted a not-that-inspiring 4.6 net rating on the road in March. Contrast that with the 16.2 net rating the Spurs posted in 7 road games last March, and you'll see why it's still in this team's best interest to get into the upper part of the playoff bracket, ahead of LA and outside the crosshairs of Golden State's guns for as long as possible.

The Spurs still haven't rid themselves entirely of their 3rd quarter bugaboo, as witnessed by the collapse of double-digit leads in multiple games. But in March, the third was no longer the place where dreams went to die. In fact, one of the more encouraging signs of the team's re-invigoration is the mental fortitude they've exhibited by allowing large leads to bend without breaking. It's been rather startling to see the rubber band effect of a 15-20-25 point lead be pulled back to 10, 7 or 4 points, and then to see the team respond.

That kind of resolve has been beyond SA's reach for much of this season, and it bodes well for a hearty playoff run, where it's-not-how-you-start-it's-how-you-finish, and so forth. And then there's the fact that having a double-digit lead in the first place - as the Spurs have now achieved in 19 straight games as of Thursday morning - says something about the ceiling of the team and its ability to win consistently.

But sometimes, winning and losing isn't a matter of resolve as much as it is a matter of luck and circumstance.

As you may recall, the Spurs' other loss of the month was The Kyrie Irving Game. That loss dropped the Spurs to an unfathomable 1-6 in overtime this year, which is the worst record in the league. More than perhaps any other  year, it's easy to recall not only that the Spurs have lost more than their fair share of OT games, but the games themselves. Since OT is a statistical coin flip, and since this team even now sits a mere 2 games back of the Southwest Division-leading Grizzlies in the loss column, and since the Spurs now have the 3rd best point differential in the Western Conference, it's easy to rationalize that the defending champs are actually a 2 or 3 seed masquerading as a 6 seed. Not that it matters, since the team would open the playoffs on the road if they started today.

As nice as it was the see the Spurs bounce back after a rough February, the individual performances exhibited by Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, and Kawhi Leonard command most of the adulation. Parker and Diaw have at various points this year been given up as lost causes, proof positive that the Spurs didn't have the stuff to defend Title #5. Somebody must have stuck some fresh baguettes under their noses, because both Frenchmen have resuscitated like the spring flowers. Tony began to snap out of his funk during a rather ugly win at Sacramento during the second half of the RRT. Boris came along exactly two weeks later, in a win over Milwaukee in which the Spurs bounced back from the infamous Knicks loss by putting up 114 points on one of the best defensive teams in the league.

"I gave up a long time ago trying to understand the game of basketball," said Parker after the Bucks game. Parker also said Diaw's aggressiveness was a big reason for the win. Bobo has stayed aggressive ever since, upping his scoring average by 50% over the last 10 games and making more than half his shots. With Manu Ginobili either out injured or ineffective for much of the month, Boris has once again asserted himself as the biggest monkey wrench in the Spurs' tool box. He's also masking the relative short-comings of a bench that has yet to regain its 2014 form, especially in the case of Patty Mills..

Leonard, meanwhile, has just about fulfilled every reasonable expectation for his development. If the last two years' Finals were lab prototypes of Kawhi's potential, March 2015 might just be the official roll-out of Leonard as a production-ready First Option. Take your pick of games in March, or even parts of games - like the fourth quarter against Memphis or the first half against Cleveland - and you'll see that The Claw has grasped the essence of superstar-dom. He's always controlled games with his on-ball defense, but now he's bending defenses with his passing, draining jump-shots over big defenders, and salvaging broken plays with all the savvy and elan of the Big 3. It seems unfair to say this about a guy who already has a Finals MVP under his belt, but the next three months are going to be the chance for Kawhi Leonard to truly legitimize himself as a superstar. However long it lasts, the Spurs 2015 playoff run will begin and end with him. Opponents' defensive game plans will try to stop him by taking the ball out of his hands, or else dare him to win games on his own by draining those jumpers and nothing else, the same as the Spurs defenses have done in the past. Opposing offenses will run him through screens and force him to make decisions in an attempt to wear him down on the other end, knowing that he is what makes the Spurs special.

How's he going to respond to that? I don't know. His performance in games 3-5 last June make me think it'll be something pretty amazing. Listening to the man actually talk is frustratingly un-illuminating, as ESPN.com's Michael Wallace discovered recently.

"I guess I'm getting comfortable out there," he told Wallace.

"He's playing with more patience," added Ginobili. "He knows the shots are going to come, so he doesn't have to force and keep looking for his moment."

So what's the difference between now and last June, when Pop's famous "family business" talk roused Leonard out of his Finals games 1-2 stupor?

"It's just easier because I've been through the league. It's just about working on your game off the floor and knowing where to go, and that's pretty much it."

So let's just say that if you're doubting Kawhi, you're doubting the Spurs. And we've all learned better than to do that, right?

The emergence of Leonard qualified as the most enticing storyline of the past month, but even that development has to be understood in its larger context. Namely, that the Spurs' "preferred" starting lineup of Duncan-Splitter-Green-Leonard-Parker is at long last getting sustained reps, and is producing some profound numbers. This includes a 121.5 offensive rating, which would lead the league by a country mile over a full season. Tiago Splitter has shown some uncharacteristic aggressiveness in attacking the rim (often with unintended hilarious results), Danny Green leads the league in points scored on spot-up plays, and Tim Duncan is Tim Duncan. While it's fair to ask whether all that can be maintained over the course of a playoff run, where it's been necessary to tweak the lineup over both of the last two Finals runs, the Starters are getting the Spurs into the playoffs on a high note.